The Musical Canine

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

When my son practices his trumpet, sometimes our dog, Willy, will howl. My son thinks this is really funny, but some people say Willy howls because the sound hurts his ears. He doesn’t act like he’s in pain. Still, if it isn’t bothering him, why does he make all that noise?

Given the dog’s incredible range of hearing as well as sensitivity, it’s reasonable to assume that certain sounds could cause the dog pain. However, a dog in pain wouldn’t sit and howl merrily away as dogs who howl in response to music or sirens almost invariably do. Instead, the dog would make every attempt either to get away from the sound or attack its source. Because of this, it seems safe to say that Willy is communicating something else with his howling. But what?

Although the study of animal communication remains in its infancy, we do know that three factors influence the quality of a particular species’s communication:

  1. The specie’s sensory capacity
  2. Its social structure
  3. The make-up of its surrounding biological community

The more highly developed these factors, the more sophisticated the species’ communication. Let’s apply these criteria to Willy’s musical howling and see what they can tell us.

In order to communicate, you need to be able to detect another’s presence and any signals they might send to communicate with you. Because sound triggered Willy’s howling, his hearing merits attention. Does the level of development of this canine sense make Willy a good prospect for interspecies communication, and specifically that with humans? Absolutely. Dogs dwell in a world filled with sounds beyond human comprehension. In addition to hearing sounds at pitches that exceed the high end of the human spectrum, they’re also much more sensitive to the intensity of sounds than we are. A sound owners lose track of beyond 20 feet may still attract their dogs. Put another way, Willy can easily hear any sound messages communicated by his owners.

However, just because humans and animals can detect a common range of reasonably complex sensory data doesn’t mean that they’ll want to communicate. In order to do that, they must enjoy being around each other, too. This brings us to factor two, social structure. Both Willy and his owners belong to species possessing a strong social instinct. Not only do we and dogs enjoy being around our own kind, we’ll more readily add members of different species to our packs or families than more solitary species, too. Additionally, as social species whose members need to keep in contact with each other for a wide variety of reasons, both humans and dogs commonly use vocal signals to communicate.

Once we put dog and human together, what role does the environment play? Studies of wild animals indicate that members of different species who live together in more complex environments develop more complex forms of communication than those who live more simple lives. Even more intriguing, other studies indicate that a fundamental interspecies “language” exists. Based on frequency and duration, scientists have categorize animal vocalizations into three groups: the growl, the bark, and the whine. Sounds in the same range made by different mammals, including humans, and birds, correlate with the same emotion or mood. For example, the bark consists of a tone that rises then falls in pitch, creating a specific pattern that indicates interest or curiosity. When a recording of a Carolina wren chirping that same pattern is played slowly, it sounds remarkably like the bark of a small dog, while that same pattern in human language comes out, “Wow.”

Given the dog’s and our sensory compatibility, our social natures, and our often complex environments with their musical instruments and other forms of communication, it would seem well within our dog’s capacity to seek different ways to communicate with us in our own “language,” too. When we add the awareness that interspecies communication similarities exist, Willy’s howls take on a whole new dimension. Does the trumpet’s note reverberate through him and awaken primal memories of ancient moonlit nights when his wild ancestors bared their souls in their own species-specific language? Or does that trumpet call with its unique pattern urge Willy, “Howl along with me as loudly as you can!” in that primitive interspecies-language we’re only beginning to comprehend?

Although the idea that something as seemingly unrelated as a particular note played by a particular instrument might trigger our dogs to communicate with us might seem more like magic than science, as we learn more about animal communication we may discover that a little bit of Dr. Doolittle lurks in us all.