Information about the New Guinea Singing Dog

The New Guinea Singing Dog (also known as the New Guinea Dingo, Hallstrom Dog and Singer) is a wild dog once found throughout New Guinea. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their unique howl.

Little is known about New Guinea Singing Dogs in their native habitat. Photographs of wild Singing Dogs are non-existent. Current genetic research indicates that the ancestors of New Guinea Dingoes were probably taken overland through present day China to New Guinea by travelers during pre-Neolithic times.

Captive-bred New Guinea Dingoes serve as companion dogs. Part of conservation efforts focus attention on their exceptional intelligence and physical abilities.

The first Singing Dog was taken from New Guinea in 1897. At that time many naturalists killed their specimens and studied them later. Such was the case with the first New Guinea Dingo, which was shot and killed by Sir William MacGregor on Mount Scratchley at an elevation of 2,133 metres (6,998 ft).

MacGregor sent both the skin and the skeleton, preserved in alcohol, to the Queensland Museum. He described the dog as 11.5 in (29 cm) at the shoulder and primarily black in colour. White markings trimmed the neck, the throat, chest and tip of the tail.

In 1911 C.W. DeVis assembled and studied the MacGregor’s specimen, along with Professor Wood Jones, followed by H.A. Longman in 1928. From 1897 until 1954, this single specimen comprised the scientific community’s entire body of knowledge regarding the New Guinea Singing Dog. In 1956, Albert Speer and J.P. Sinclair obtained a pair of Singing Dogs in the Lavanni Valley. The dogs were sent to Sir Edward Hallstrom who had set up a native animal study center in Nondugi, and then on to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.

There has been considerable controversy regarding the taxonomic classification of New Guinea Dingoes. In 1958, Ellis Troughton examined the two Singer specimens from the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Subsequently, the New Guinea Singing Dog was classified as a distinct species and was named Canis hallstromi (in honor of Sir Edward Hallstrom). Singing Dogs have been reclassified several times and have variously been called Canis lupus hallstromi or Canis familiaris hallstromi. They have been classed as variants of the dingo or domestic dog. They have been called Canis dingo and Canis dingo hallstromi. Most authors class the New Guinea Singing Dog either as either a separate species or a domestic dog.

The NGSD is not genetically or ecologically exchangeable with any other canid population, and the NGSD is an evolutionarily significant unit. Mammal Species of the World lists these dogs as part of Canis lupus dingo, provisionally separate from Canis lupus familiaris.

Laurie Corbett, in his book The Dingo in Australia and in Asia (1995), concluded that dingoes were Canis lupus dingo, and as such, are descended from the Grey Wolf.

Dr. Alan Wilton and his co-researchers have proven Singers are genetically matched to Australian Dingoes.

Compared to other species in its genus, the New Guinea Singing Dog is described as relatively short-legged and broad-headed. These dogs have an average shoulder height of 31-46 cm (13-16 in.) and weigh 9-14 kg (17-25 lbs.). They do not have rear dewclaws.

The limbs and spine of Singers are very flexible, and they can spread their legs sideways to 90º, comparable to the Norwegian Lundehund. They can also rotate their front and hind paws more than domestic dogs, which enables them to climb trees with thick bark or branches that can be reached from the ground; however their climbing skills do not reach the same level as those of the gray fox.

The eyes, which are highly reflective, are almond-shaped and are angled upwards from the inner to outer corners with dark eye rims. Eye color ranges from dark amber to dark-brown. Their eyes glow bright green when bright lights are shined in at them in low light conditions. Researchers believe there are two reasons for the bright reflective glow; not only do the pupils open wider and allow in more light than in other dog breeds, there is also a higher concentration of cells in the tapetum. These two features allow singing dogs to see more clearly in low light, a trait which is unusual in canids.

New Guinea Singing Dogs have erect, pointed, fur-lined ears. As with other wild dogs, the ‘ears’ perk or lay forward, which is suspected to be an important survival features for the species. The ears can be rotated like a directional receiver to pick up faint sounds. Singer tails should be bushy, long enough to reach the hock, free of kinks, and have a white tip.

Pups are born with a dark chocolate brown pelt with gold flecks and reddish tinges, which changes to light brown by the age of six weeks. Adult coloration occurs around four months of age. For adult dogs, the colors brown, black and tan have been reported, all with white points. The sides of the neck and zonal stripes behind the scapula are golden. Black and very dark guard hair is generally lightly allocated over the hair of the spine, concentrating on the back of the ears and the surface of the tail over the white tip. The muzzle is always black on young dogs. Generally, all colors have white markings underneath the chin, on the paws, chest and tail tip. About one third also have white markings on the muzzle, face and neck. By 7 years, the black muzzle begins to turn gray.

Flannery’s short 1988 report on dogs in the mountains of Papua New Guinea is regarded as the only available report on direct observation of wild specimens. He described them as “extraordinarily shy” and “almost preternaturally canny”. According to Robert Bino (a student from the University of Papua New Guinea) these dogs use their resting places under roots and ledges in New Guinea only sporadically. Bino theorized that these dogs are highly mobile and forage alone and concluded that they therefore might use several hiding places in their home range.

During research observations, the examined dogs generally showed a lower threshold of behavior (e.g. scent rolling) than other domestic dogs, as well as an earlier developmental onset than other domestic dogs or grey wolves (e.g. hackle biting at 2 weeks compared to other domestic dogs/grey wolves at 6 weeks) and a quantitative difference (e.g. reduced expression of intraspecific affiliate behaviors). The dogs observed did not show the typical canid play bow; however, Imke Voth found this behavior during examinations in the 1980s.

Several unique behaviors have been exhibited by New Guinea Singing Dogs:

  • Head toss: This behavior, shown by every observed dog, is a prompt for attention, food or a sign of frustration, expressed in varying degrees depending on the level of arousal. In the complete expression, the head is swept to one side, nose rotated through a 90º arc to midline, then rapidly returned to the starting position. The entire sequence takes 1-2 seconds. The mildest expression is a slight flick of the head to the side and back. During this behavior, the characteristic contrasting black and white chin markings are displayed.
  • Copulatory scream: At the copulatory tie, the female emits a repetitive sequence of loud, high-pitched yelps lasting about 3 minutes. This scream has a strong arousal effect on most domestic dogs.
  • Copulatory contractions: About 3 minutes after the start of the tie, females begin a series of rhythmic abdominal contractions. During each contraction, the skin of the flanks and lumbar area is drawn forward. These contractions are accompanied by groans and occur regularly, several seconds apart (they may pause intermittently), continuing for the length of the tie.
  • Additionally, Singers have an unusual form of auto-erotic stimulation, which includes a strong tendency to target the genitals for both playful and aggressive bites, a cheek-rub that may be a marking behavior and a tooth-gnashing threat.

During estrus, when potential partners are present, same-sex Singers often fight to the point of severe injury. Furthermore, adults also display a high degree of aggression towards unfamiliar dogs, which would indicate that they are strongly territorial. Their distinctive aggression could not be observed to that extent among Australian dingoes (who live without human contact).

Based on dogs in captivity, it has been theorized that wild singing dogs do not form permanent packs. All sightings in the wild were of single dogs or pairs and, according to observations by Imke Voth in the 1980s, some dogs are more comfortable in pairs and others in small groups. Researchers have noted rough play behavior by the mothers towards their pups, which often switched over to agonistic behavior, as well as “handling”. The mothers did not adequately react to the pup’s shouts of pain but rather interpreted it as further “invitation” for “playing”. The researchers stated that this behavior was noted in their subjects only and does not necessarily apply to all Singers.

New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end. According to observations made by Ortolani, the howling of these dogs can be clearly differentiated from that of Australian dingoes, and differs significantly from that of grey wolves and coyotes.

An individual howl lasts an average of 3 seconds, but can last as long as 5 seconds. At the start, the frequency rises and stabilizes for the rest of the howling, but normally shows abrupt changes in frequency. Modulations can change quickly every 300-500 milliseconds or every second. Five to eight overtones can generally be distinguished in a spectrographic analysis of the howling.

New Guinea Singing Dogs sometimes howl together, which is commonly referred to as chorus howling. During chorus howling, one dog starts and others join in shortly afterward. In most cases, chorus howling is well synchronized, and the howls of the group end nearly simultaneously. Spontaneous howling is most common during the morning and evening hours. A trill, with a distinctly “bird-like” character, is emitted during high arousal. It is a high-frequency pulsed signal whose spectral appearance suggests a continuous source that is periodically interrupted, and might last as long as 800 milliseconds. Such a sound is not known for any other canid; however, a similar sound (with lower frequency) has been described for a dhole at the Moscow Zoo. When they are kept with dogs that bark, Singers may mimic the other dogs.