When I was 12, I began to play the oboe. Like any beginner, I was not good. And every time I held a long, out-of-tune note, my dog would instantly begin howling like some deranged four-legged backup singer. Dogs, of course, howl along to all sorts of music: the Law and Order theme song, “Let It Go,” and most ubiquitously these days, Adele’s “Hello” among them. So why do these animals, not generally known for their sense of rhythm or pitch, seem mysteriously driven to sing?
Researchers have long been interested in this question. A student wrote in a January 1906 issue of Nature Studies on the subject of “Why Do Dogs Howl to Music” that writers for nature publications, “being mind-bound by the fetish of ‘evolution’ theories,” often look to the “primeval Dog” for answers. But evolution theory is actually a useful guide in this case: When dogs hear a human voice belting out a tune, their pack instincts kick in; they want to participate in the chorus. “It’s like a family singing,” animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt has said.
Terry Marie Curtis, a clinical behaviorist at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, explained that dogs can croon to the radio for a variety of different reasons—and it can be hard to parse them. She once had a client who had adopted a Siberian husky. “[The client] took the puppy from his mom, put it in the car, and there was some sort of Celtic music playing on a CD as this guy drove away with the puppy, and the puppy was howling.” From then on, any time the dog heard Celtic music, he howled. “In that case, was the dog feeling melancholy? Was the dog feeling sad? These are human terms. [Was the music] associated with being taken away from his mom? Did he like the sound of the music? It’s really tough.”
But Curtis said that more vocal breeds—like huskies and most hounds—are more prone to howling in general, and thus would be likelier to wail along to music than say, a bichon frise. Howling to music can also become a matter of classical conditioning: if your dog realizes that you seem enthusiastically impressed when she howls to music, she’s more likely to do it again. The good news, Curtis said, is that if your pet doesn’t run out of the room or cower under a chair after he starts howling to Adele’s “Hello,” his musical abilities are probably not a sign of melancholia or distress. He’s more likely imagining a kindred canine spirit crooning back at him from the other side