Even if you are a terrible singer and can't carry a tune, your dog doesn't care. In fact, he or she will love you for the effort. Singing to your dog is a way to engage their attention and maintain the connection that helps build the bond. Singing in your "sweet doggie" voice will make it even more enjoyable for your pooch.
Dogs recognize your voice above all others, as has been shown in fMRI brain scans. Parts of their brain light up when they hear their person's voice more than just random humans. It comforts them to hear your voice, and you can use singing to relax your dog when they are feeling some stress.
To start serenading, get your dog's attention if your dog enjoys eye contact. Start with a gentle, soothing volume, not too loud as that is no fun for these masters of hearing. Think of it as tickling their senses, not overwhelming them with your opera impressions.
Do you feel silly when you even think about singing to your dog? That's a good sign, it means you are doing it right. Right as in the way your dog would like to be serenaded, that is with the high-baby-talk voice that most dogs take as a sign of affection and comfort. If you are singing to your dog, in the doggie-voice, you will be in the playful side of your brain, most likely smiling, or giggling as you do it, and your dog will pick up on your happy mood. Happy moods are contagious to dogs, so you might as well spread the cheer.
This is my dog Sophia, responding to my singing to her. The best songs for dogs are ones that include names frequently, followed by a hefty use of slow vowel sounds. So the brilliant lyrics might go like this (of course in my sweet doggie voice) Sophia...la, la, la, ah, pa, bah, Sophia, lo, lo, lo...Sophia..." You get the idea. If it makes you laugh, you are doing it right.
A University of Maryland study by Amrita Mallikorjun and others shows that dogs are more drawn to vowel sounds than to consonants. They have what is called a bias towards these sounds, so if you have a dog named Joe, and you accidentally call him Bo, he will most likely still know you mean him. But if you call Joe by the name Jean, he may not respond. He won't recognize the "J" sound if it is not followed by the vowel sound he is used to knowing means him.
This is important for dogs being trained for service work, or activities where they have to learn many commands. It is best if you use words that have different sounds or syllables to help your dog distinguish between them.
When you sing, put your whole body into it, wag your head, and wiggle as if you had a tail. Your dog will respond to this "happy communication" and most likely will follow suit. Dogs scan our body motions, rhythm, whether we are fluid or tense to understand our emotions. Giving your dog clear information through playful "waggy" movements reads loud and clear, and they don't have to work hard to try to figure out what you are feeling. It is a very friendly thing to do when you are meeting a new dog, to be all "waggy" in greeting them, even at a distance.
You can experiment with calming, lullaby rhythms went you want your dog to de-stress and calm down. And you can try more upbeat rhythms when you want to get your dog more energized and playful. I suggest making up your own melodies because this activates your creativity and puts you in a sillier mood. But if you prefer you can sing a song you know with your improvised lyrics that include your dog's name. So, unless your dog runs to another room when you try to sing, give it your all.
To read more about animals and musicality, please have a look at our blog, Animals and Musicality.
There has been some fun new research on animals and musicality, and some animals definitely respond to rhythm, so if that appeals to you, try out some fun moves that your animal can imitate or engage with. The more fun you have, the more fun your dog will have. And that's something worth wagging about.
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection