You put your favorite album on, hit play and crank up the volume. Then it’s off to auditory heaven as you lean back and take in the glorious music.
But wait a second… you don’t remember hearing that part of the song before. Is this a remix you weren’t aware of? Did your copy of this song get corrupted somehow?
Nope, it’s just your dog howling along with the music. Apparently he’s decided to join the band as a backup vocalist — except his rhythm’s not quite right, he’s a little out of key, and he doesn’t seem to know the lyrics!
Whether you find it cute, confusing, or downright maddening, your dog’s musical howling is far from unique: most dogs howl along with music at some point or another. But why do they do it?
There are a few reasons why dogs howl to music, some endearing and some a little more concerning. Let’s tune into our dogs’ psyches and find out more.
Howling Through History
Historically, howling has been a critical part of canine communication. In the wild, wolves howl to signal their whereabouts and activities to the rest of the pack.
These howls communicate a lot of vital information: how far away the wolf is from the others, whether he’s spotted danger, the location of potential prey, and whether the howler needs help. Howls keep the pack members in touch with each other even when they’re not in the same place.
But howls are also used to communicate with rival packs and other animals. When another wolf pack encroaches on another’s turf, the resident lookout will begin to howl — and then the rest of the pack will join in.
These group howling sessions can be deafening, and that’s the point: they communicate the size and threat level of the pack to the intruders without needing to make themselves visible.
And each wolf that joins takes responsibility for a different note, pitch or tone. Wolves will even modify their tones to accommodate new howlers and maintain perfect harmony.
The more wolves join in, the greater the effect and the larger the pack seems. And the larger the pack, the less likely for the trespassers to continue their encroachment.
Even when there’s not necessarily a reason to howl, some canines do it anyway. It may be for fun, or it may be that howling with the pack builds bonds between the members — just as we can bond with friends by singing along to music, wolves and dogs may bond with one another by howling.
The instinct to howl along with other canines has been passed down to our domestic dogs. It’s this instinct that’s key to their musical behavior.
Hidden Messages in Music
No, we’re not talking about secret messages encoded backward in popular songs, nor are we talking about esoteric symbology in song lyrics. For dogs, music’s hidden messages are contained in the sounds themselves — pitches so high we can’t hear them.
The upper range of our hearing extends to about 20,000Hz; higher sounds exist in great multitudes, but we simply can’t hear them. Dogs, on the other hand, hear sounds of up to 65,000Hz.
Those extra 45,000Hz mean that your dog hears sounds we can’t even fathom, from machine noises to ambient whirs to animal vocalizations to musical tones. You may think you know your favorite song by heart, but if you could hear it the way your dog does, you probably wouldn’t recognize it due to the additional high-pitched noises.
And many of these extra noises sound like howls.
We know that dogs can’t help but howl along when they hear other dogs baying away. So if your music happens to contain a howl-like tone somewhere in the soundwaves, he won’t be able to stop himself from howling along.
And remember how wolves howling in a pack will modulate their pitches to fill out the overall sound? Well, your dog may be doing the same thing — if the song he’s howling to is lacking a certain tone, he may take it upon himself to fill that void.
Howls of Pain
Sometimes, though, dogs howl to music not because they enjoy it or want to join in. If the music is too loud or harsh, they may howl in pain.
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A dog’s hearing encompasses a much wider range of pitches than ours, but it’s also four times stronger. Extremely high- or low-pitched tones, loud volumes or harsh tones can be painful for our ears, so to a dog’s highly sensitive ears, they can be excruciating.
Howling is a dog’s way of expressing pain, so it’s important to distinguish between musical howling and painful howling. If your dog howls to music and also shows fear responses like hiding, trembling or panicking, turn the volume down or shut it off entirely — it’s hurting him!