As someone who loves karaoke, there’s a special place in my heart for an unknown performer who takes the stage and astonishes a crowd. If there’s an analog in the dog world, it’s surely the New Guinea Singing Dog, one of the rarest dog breeds on Earth. They have spent most of their history roaming the mountainous terrain of New Guinea, well away from the eyes and homes of curious humans.
Due to their genetic isolation, New Guinea Singing Dogs are more closely related to the Australian Dingo than to any of the domestic dogs with which we are familiar. This is geographically unsurprising, since New Guinea is located just off the northeast tip of Australia in the Pacific Ocean. What we do know about the New Guinea Singing Dog is based on dogs who have been bred and raised in captivity over the last 60 years.
New Guinea Singing Dogs — also known as Singers, Highland Wild Dogs, Hallstrom Dogs, or New Guinea Dingos — are widely believed to have begun developing 6,000 years ago, when land crossings between present-day Australia and New Guinea were still possible. The New Guinea Singing Dog is a true wild dog. This does not mean that they are feral or particularly dangerous. As a wild dog, the New Guinea Singing Dog simply has neither the long history of domestication, nor the habits or physical traits associated with living in close contact with humans. They are genetically closer to the Australian Dingo than to any domestic dog.
These similarities and differences, both between the New Guinea Singing Dog and Dingoes, as well as other domestic dogs, makes the New Guinea Singing Dog difficult to classify. It is almost regarded as a kind of missing link between wolf and dog, a cryptozoological rarity that has developed coeval with domestic dogs, but in utter isolation from them. Reflecting this, the New Guinea Singing dog has been given the imprecise scientific name canis lupus dingo, a classification that it shares with the Australian Dingo itself.
First recorded in the 1890s, first contact with Western observers went as such things usually do; with a specimen acquired and the remains preserved for study. Since the 1950s, approximately eight New Guinea Singing Dogs have been captured and bred in zoos and nature preserves. They are extremely rare dogs; the total population in captivity today amounts to fewer than 300 total dogs. The population of New Guinea Singing Dogs in their native habitat is completely unknown. So rarely are they seen that the last confirmed photograph of the New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild was taken in December 2012.
As wild dogs, New Guinea Singing Dogs are physically adapted for lives of complete freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency. New Guinea Singing Dogs raised in captivity exhibit physical characteristics that clearly differentiate them from the domesticated dogs that we are most familiar with. They are medium-sized dogs; the typical adult reaches 11-18 inches tall and weighs 20-30 pounds.
Distinctive physical qualities of the New Guinea Singing Dog include:
1. Extremely flexible skeletal structure. The spine, legs, and joints of a New Guinea Singing Dog have been described as cat-like. They are able to not only squeeze through small spaces, but also climb trees with ease. Their flexibility is ideal for navigating the uneven and treacherous terrain of their native habitat.
2. Broad jaws and pronounced carnassial teeth. Another consequence of being a wild dog is that the New Guineas Singing Dog must feed and provide for himself. His carnassial teeth are larger and sharper than most domesticated dogs, which is handy for tearing and processing meat from his prey.
3. Enhanced eyes and night vision. Presumed to inhabit thickly forested and mountainous terrain, New Guinea Singing Dogs have an outstanding ability to see in the dark. Where most dogs’ eyes glow red when light shines in their eyes or as a consequence of flash photography, the eyes of a New Guinea Singing Dog glow green because they are able to absorb so much more light.
The New Guinea Singing Dog derives his name from his amazing vocal expressiveness. The sounds made by a New Guinea Singing Dog are unlike those of any other canid, be it a wolf, dingo, or dog. Producing a wide range of sounds, the New Guinea Singing Dog can howl, yelp, yip, trill, and chirp. Groups or packs of New Guinea Singing Dogs also sing in chorus and concert with each other. Presumably these protracted and highly coordinated songs were useful for communicating with others over the heavily forested and high-altitude regions of their native habitat.
Whatever the number — and it is still unknown — of New Guinea Singing Dogs still living in the wild, the ones we do have are rare and precious indeed. If pedigree programs are established and hybridization becomes required to bolster the population, we stand to lose the very traits and characteristics that make the New Guinea Singing Dog so unique. Committed organizations such as the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society and New Guinea Singing Dog International are dedicated to the study and conservation of this rare wild dog breed.
The majority of them live in zoos or nature preserves around the world, while some have naturally found their way into human homes as domestic pets. While New Guinea Singing Dogs have been adopted into civilian homes, they are not suited to every owner or environment. Even raised in captivity, these wild dogs are unaccustomed to restraint. They require plenty of room for regular physical activity, and their flexibility and physical prowess make them brilliant escape artists.
Whether she is digging, jumping, climbing, or singing, the New Guinea Singing Dog is special precisely because of her wild dog heritage.
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About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.