You are just relaxing, listening to some of your favorite music, and suddenly your pup begins to cry. What you are hearing is actually not a cry, but more of a howl, and it is most likely not from pain or sadness. Your dog is undoubtedly moved to join in with the music, as he hears things that are out of your range. He is also called from his wolf roots to join in as part of an intrinsic communication system. Initially this is fun, but if you listen to music often and cannot hear over your pup, or you play an instrument and he is constantly interrupting your practice with his howling, there are ways to curb his behavior so he is not a disruption.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs will cry, or howl, as a form of communication. While domesticated dogs tend to bark more than they howl, it seems certain sounds and pitches will bring out the howler in any pooch. Wolves howl to communicate, partly as a location device, and to let each other know what is going on. When other wolves hear the howl, they chime in with their own howl, typically at a different pitch. While your dog does not have that same need or skill, he is still wired to respond when he hears a certain pitch or sound. Humans and dogs have the same hearing at lower frequencies, but dogs hear more at higher frequencies and are most likely responding to sounds you do not hear. Scientific studies show that when wolves join in on a group howl, no two have the same pitch. Wolves will even shift their pitch if someone joins in on one that is already a part of the group. It is as if they each need to be unique, and they each need to belong. Your dog carries this trait in his genes, and cannot help but join in when he hears a mournful tone. Dogs also seem drawn to certain sounds, such as those produced by reed instruments, like the saxophone and clarinet. Others have been known to join in on a slow violin solo or on a human voice that holds a note for a long time. Studies have also shown that music can evoke mood in dogs. One study played different genres of music to dogs and observed their behavior. When the dogs listened to popular music, their reaction was the same as they have with human conversation in that they had none. When they listened to heavy metal, the dogs became agitated and barked. When they listened to classical music, they seemed to calm down and decrease their barking. Finally, certain breeds are known to love to croon. The Norwegian Lundehund, Basset Hound, Golden Retriever, Alaskan Malamute, and of course the New Guinea Singing Dog all love to howl, sing, and cry with tunes.
Encouraging the Behavior
A dog that cries to music can be a good thing. In 1980, the debut performance of Howl was hosted by Carnegie Hall. It was a musical piece composed of three dogs and twenty voices. The composer and conductor, Nick Nurock, went on to produce Sonata for Piano and Dog as well as Expedition, both of which featured dogs howling in the performances. In 1967, President LBJ was recorded singing a duet with his beloved dog Yuki. Together they howled out a Western folk song and part of an operatic aria. Both were off key and enjoyed themselves immensely. Your dog undoubtedly enjoys singing, especially with you. It is his way of bonding with you and feeling like he is a part of your pack. He can communicate with you in an inherent way that can only bring the two of you closer. It is also interesting to observe what songs will bring out his howl, and how his pitch will change as the music changes or as you add in your own voice. If you are a musician, you can monitor his reaction to get a sense of what your music is evoking in terms of emotion. Richard Wilhelm Wagner used to play music he was composing for his King Charles Spaniel, Peps. He found that depending on their keys, certain melodies would evoke different responses from Peps. He then coined those responses as ‘musical motif’ and would use them to highlight certain aspects of character’s personalities in his operas. An organist at Hereford Cathedral in London would often bring his pup Dan to practice. It was observed that Dan would growl at choir singers who fell out of tune. Clearly having a dog that can hear pitch and emotion in music is helpful in developing quality tunes.
Other Solutions and Considerations
As with all things, too much can be too much. If your dog is howling so often that the neighbors are complaining and sleep is disrupted, you have a problem. This can be especially problematic if you are learning to play an instrument. Behaviorists suggest desensitization and counter-conditioning to decrease the dog’s desire to chime into our jam fest. If you start off with the music soft and slowly increase the volume, you may be able to get him used to the music without him feeling the need to chime in. If you offer him a treat while he is quiet, he will begin to associate being quiet with music as something good that will be rewarded. Please note, dogs are not howling with music because they are in pain or it hurts their ears. If that were the case, they would leave the area or cover their ears.
Dogs cry to music because they feel called to do so. In the wild, wolves howl to communicate their location and their feelings. Other wolves naturally chime in with their own pitch and tune as part of the pack mentality. Your dog is responding to a pitch that you may not even hear. Music can affect his mood, so if he needs to be calmed, classical music may be the way to go. If you need him to not howl along with your music, slowly desensitize him by keeping the volume low and counter-condition him by rewarding him for being quiet while the music plays. But, if you enjoy the sounds, smile at him and howl away.