The New Guinea Singing Dog

© Janice Koler-Matznick/Kennel Club Books

Many have forgotten, but you must not forget it. You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.  The Little Prince,  Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

History of the Singing Dog


The New Guinea Singing dog is a wild dog from the mountains of Papua New Guinea. They have been displayed in zoos since 1956.  In North America, a few Singers are now being kept as house pets.   However, New Guinea Singing Dogs (Singers) are tamed wild animals and sharing your home with one requires special considerations beyond those needed for domesticated dogs. This book describes Singer history, outlines their behavior and the type of security measures necessary to keep a Singer safely confined, and specifies the care and attention they need to become successful as companion animals.

 Singer Origin

The origin of Singers is a mystery. They had to be transported to the island by humans, as even at lowest sea levels it was too far between neighboring islands for a small dog to swim, but no one knows where the ancestral Singers came from or exactly when they arrived. We know from the remains of non-native animals on islands of the West Pacific that people were transporting wild animals between the islands 20,000 years ago. The oldest dog fossil in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a single tooth dated to about 5,500 years ago. A single tooth can not identify the type of dog it came from, although the tooth’s size can provide some indication of the dog’s size. This tooth was within the size range for Singers, so we know there were Singer-size dogs in PNG at least 5,000 years ago.  Dogs could have been present long before that, but they have just not yet been discovered. PNG is situated just below the equator, north of Australia. Scientific archaeological and paleontological work has been sparse in this forbidding island, the second largest island in the world (only Greenland is larger), so there probably are many discoveries still to be made there.

The closest known Singer relative is the dingo of Australia. The oldest securely dated Australian dingo fossil is about 3,500 years old. Because there have never been any dingoes in Tasmania, and that island was connected to Australia by a land bridge until about 12,000 years ago, it is assumed dingoes arrived somewhere within that time span. Recent DNA studies have shown that Singers and dingoes are very closely related. They are more closely related to each other than either is to the Pacific Asian domestic dogs. It is not known which, the dingo or the Singer, was ancestral to the other, or if they were separately founded from the same ancestral population.

There was a land bridge between New Guinea and Australia until about 6,000 years ago. The dingo could have originated as a Singer and became larger and longer-legged in Australia as an adaptation to hunting larger prey in more open places. But it is also possible that the Singer originated as a larger dingo and adapted to the thick forests and steep mountains of New Guinea by becoming smaller and shorter legged. Dr. Susan Bulmer, an archaeozoologist who has worked extensively in New Guinea, has stated she believes that either the dingo and the Singer arrived at the same time from the same source some 10 – 20,000 years ago, or that the ancestral canid arrived first in New Guinea and then expanded into Australia.

In any case, today the two dog species can be completely separated by size and skull shape. Singers average 20 – 30 pounds while Australian dingoes average 30 – 40 pounds, and Singer skulls are much broader across the cheeks in relation to skull length than dingo skulls. The dingoes of Thailand are smaller than the Australian dingoes, and the Thai mountain dingoes appear to be the closest in appearance to the Singers.  Future DNA studies may show that the Thai dingo is also very closely related to Singers.

In the Wild

Almost nothing is known about the wild Singers. The Highland terrain is so difficult to navigate, and the interest in studying what most scientists have thought was “just a feral domestic dog” so low, that until recently no one has wanted to go to the trouble and expense to study wild Singers. We do know from anecdotal reports by local natives that Singers have disappeared from areas where they were formerly known. The natives often say something like: “Yes, a long time ago we used to hear the wild dogs singing on the mountain but we have not heard them for many years.” As late as 1976 there were scientific expedition reports of Singers in the Star Mountains, and in 1989 Dr. Tim Flannery took a picture of a black and tan wild Singer at a place called Dokfuma, also in the Star Mountains.  There are probably still small remnant purebred populations throughout the island in the most remote mountains.

In 1996 a University of Papua New Guinea student, Mr. Robert Bino, made the only field observations about wild Singer habits that have been published. He did not observe any Singers directly, but used signs such as droppings, paw prints, urine marks, and prey remains to infer the Singer’s behaviors. He found that sleeping sites, often in depressions under the large buttress roots of trees or under rock outcroppings, were used infrequently, sometimes with long periods elapsing between uses. Bino hypothesized that the Singers are highly mobile and that they may forage alone, raising the possibility that one singer may use multiple refuges or sleeping sites within its home range. He also provided a list of possible prey species, including several species of rats, cuscus, wallabies, dwarf cassowaries and birds.

The dwarf cassowary is an unlikely prey for the Singers, as although “dwarf” compared to the mainland species, it is a substantial, long-legged flightless bird over twice Singer body weight, and can use its heavy legs and claws to fight fiercely. Although it was known that Singers and cassowaries used the same trails through the forests, it was assumed that the Singers were only sharing space with the cassowaries and hanging about the fruiting trees the cassowaries forage upon, in order to catch small prey attracted to the fruits. However, a native hunter reported that he found a wild Singer carcass that had been ripped open above a hind leg.  As cassowaries are known to be more defensive than aggressive, the conclusion is that the Singer attacked the cassowary and was unlucky.

Dr. Tim Flannery is the world authority on the mammals of PNG.  He spent 20 years exploring the Highlands and cataloging mammal species, discovering several previously unknown to science.  In his book Throwim Way Leg he mentions the Singers, which he considers feral domestic dogs related to the dogs of the islands to the west of PNG.  We now know from DNA this is not so, but his published comments about the Singers remain some of the few by non-native authorities.  He says that although he frequently heard their howls while in the mountains, he actually glimpsed them only a few times in all those years.  He calls them “almost preternaturally canny and shy.”

Village Singers

In the past, the Highland natives occasionally captured young wild Singer puppies and raised them in their villages to use as hunting dogs. The Singers, with their high prey drive and exceptionally acute senses of hearing and smell were useful for locating game in the dense forest. Like the Australian dingoes raised by Aborigines, some of the village-raised Singers probably returned to the wild at sexual maturity. Others may have stayed and produced puppies in or near the villages. About 3,000 years ago the natives acquired domestic dogs (which closely resemble African Basenjis) and they let their Singers cross breed with them in order to improve the offspring’s hunting ability.  However, after the mid 1900’s, the Highlanders started keeping chickens, and unlike the domesticated dogs, the Singers could not be trained to leave the chickens alone.  So they quit keeping the Singers. In the last few years numerous European dogs have been taken into the fast developing Highlands. Because many native people consider these imported purebred dogs, or their mixes, status symbols, and because these imported dogs are often larger and easier to train, they have become preferred over the indigenous dogs.  As a result, the ancient aboriginal dogs may soon be extinct as a pure type.

History of the Captive Population

The first pair Singers came out of the PNG Highlands in 1956.  Sir Edward Hallstrom, an official of the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, had sponsored the search for them, and he donated them to the zoo.  Dr. Ellis Troughton examined this pair at the zoo and in 1957 he published a scientific paper declaring the Singer a species separate from domestic dogs and dingoes. He named them Canis hallstromi after Sir Edward. Offspring of this original PNG pair were distributed to zoos around the world, including the San Diego Zoological Park in San Diego, California, which received a pair in about 1959.  The San Diego Zoo subsequently sent puppies to many zoos in the U.S.A. and Europe.  Until 1987, all Singers in the USA were descended only from this original, presumably sibling pair.

To expand the genetic diversity of the USA captive population, in 1987 the Sedgwick County Zoo, Kansas imported a female named Olga, born at the Kiel Institute for the Study of Domestic Animals in Kiel, Germany.  Olga’s ancestors were among five Singers that were brought back to Germany by a 1976 expedition of the Museum of Ethnography, State Museums, Germany, to the mountains of the western half of the island, known as Irian Jaya.  These Singers came from a village population kept by the Eipo tribe.  Today all Singers in the USA trace back to Olga on the female line.  Olga produced several litters sired by a San Diego Zoo/Taronga line male named Dinkum. Today, some USA Singer pedigrees trace entirely back to this pair in the fourth or fifth generations, as they were the only pair reproducing for several years.

In 1994 Dr. I.  Lehr Brisbin, Jr., brought the male Darkie from Canada to his Swamp Fox Sanctuary in New Ellington, South Carolina. Darkie was born in 1981 at the Baiyer River Sanctuary in the PNG Highlands. His sire was a pure Taronga line male and his dam is listed as “wild caught,” making her the last wild Singer to be added to the captive population. No other information is available on this female, as the sanctuary was later closed due to a local inter-tribal conflict and all records lost. The other offspring this pair produced did not go on to reproduce, as they all died after the Taronga Zoo transferred them to a living museum in PNG in 1989.  In 1989 Darkie and two female Singers were sent from Taronga to Ms. Sheryl Langdon in Canada.  One female died and neither reproduced, so Ms. Langdon agreed to send Darkie to Dr. Brisbin. Between the ages of 13 and 17 Darkie sired three litters out of Dr. Brisbin’s Scratchley, a Dinkum/Olga daughter.

 Physical Description

Captive male Singers generally range from 25 to 30 pounds, and are from 16 to 18 inches at the shoulders.  Females are 20 – 25 pounds and 14 – 16 inches at the shoulder.  Wild Singers would probably weigh less than the well-fed captive specimens.

Singers resemble the Australian dingo, but are about one-third smaller, and have proportionately shorter legs and broader heads. One of the first things people notice about Singers is their physical grace and agility. They have very elastic joints and spine, and therefore move fluidly: more like a cat than a dog. They are adapted to being climbers and jumpers, not long distance trotters or runners. Singers are not as fast on the straight-away as some similar-sized domestic dogs, such as the whippet, which are designed for running on flat surfaces, but they have a double-suspension gallop like the sight hounds and are much better at cornering and running over rough ground.

Singer eyes are highly reflective. When they are in low light and look toward a brighter light, their eyes glow bright green. All dogs have some green, yellow or red reflectance in their eyes, depending upon the color of their eyes, but the only animals that have the high reflectance seen in Singers are nocturnal animals such as cats. The Singer’s extremely reflective eyes are probably the result of two things: a higher concentration of cells in the tapetum (a reflective layer at the back of the eye present in most mammals, but not in humans) and a pupil that opens wider than average to admit more light. These traits would be adaptations for seeing more clearly in low light. The New Guinea locals report seeing Singers most often at dusk, so in the wild they may be most active between dusk and dawn.

The Singer coat has four hair types on the main body.  The innermost type is a fine under fur that is very thick during coldest seasons.  Next is a layer of dense medium-length hair (0.5 – 1.0 cm).  On the back of the neck and body, the third layer is of coarser guard hairs (2.5 – 3.0 cm on the hackles) and the fourth is an outer layer of scattered, protruding over-hairs that can be golden or black.  The hairs down the center of the back, shoulders to rump, are usually very stiff.

The reports about wild Singers sighted and museum specimens all state that their coat color is brown, black with tan, or black (perhaps the reporter did not notice the tan from a distance), all with white markings. The three colors known in the captive population are brown, sable (brown with a heavy overlay of dark-tipped guard hairs), or black with tan on muzzle, legs, and vent. Only the brown color variety has been described in detail.

The brown coat can be pale brown (tan), ginger, or russet, always counter-shaded with lighter cream on the belly, the inner surfaces of legs, and the brush on the underside of the tail. The sides of the neck and a zonal strip behind scapula are lighter golden. Black or very dark brown guard hairs are usually lightly scattered throughout the coat and concentrated on the backs of the ears and the upper surface of the tail above white tip. Singers usually have white markings on the underside of the chin, the paws, chest, and tail tip. About one-third also have white on the muzzle, face, and neck. The muzzle is black in young specimens and turns completely gray by seven years of age.

Singer eye openings are almond shaped and angled upwards from the inner to outer corners.  The eye rims are always dark-colored. The irises vary from dark amber to dark brown.  The white sclera often shows in inner corner of the eyes, giving the Singer a “mischievous” expression.

The ears are cupped into a tulip petal shape and the inner surface is well furred. When at alert, the ears are held slightly forward of perpendicular, not straight up. Singers can rotate their ears independently, and can lower them forward of the alert position and down slightly on the sides of the head, giving them the ability to clearly express their moods.

The Singer tail should be long enough to reach the hock, and have a cream color brush on underside with the longest hairs reaching 5.5 – 6.0 cm. When the Singer is relaxed, insecure, or in searching phase of hunting, the tail is usually carried drooping down. When it is displaying confidence, or alert in the presence of possible prey, the tail is carried above the level of the back, in a curve varying from a fish-hook shape to half circle, thus displaying the pale brush.

Unique Characteristics

Unlike any other dog, Singers have a small uvula-like structure at the rear of their soft palate.  This may have a functional significance in the production of some of their more unusual vocalizations, especially the bird-like “trill” and the cat-like “purr.”   In the only comparative study of canid blood enzymes that included Singers, they had two enzymes that matched coyote and red fox, not domestic dogs, wolves or dingoes (the rest did match dog and wolf).  This shows that either they evolved these differences while in New Guinea, or, as coyotes and foxes are older species than dogs, that they inherited them from an ancestor other than the ancestor of modern dogs.