Not-So-Great Danes: The Dogs Who Stole Christmas

Pup Culture  By Bud Boccone



Yes, of course, we all love dogs. I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading this, if we didn’t all love dogs. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And for me, the line is drawn every December at The Singing Dogs and their excruciating version of “Jingle Bells.” I’m not alone. In a listener poll conducted for the radio industry by Edison Media Research, it was voted the number-one record those surveyed would least like to hear during the holiday season. (The caroling canines overcame some stiff competition: “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” finished fifth, and Seymour Swine & the Squealers’ all-pig rendition of “Blue Christmas” ran seventh.) It surprised me to learn that Denmark is responsible for The Singing Dogs.

Denmark is usually such a nice, agreeable country. Many of the finer things in life come from Denmark. Hans Christian Andersen. Blue cheese. Butter cookies. Some countries export terrorism and intolerance; the Danish are synonymous with breakfast pastry. But in 1955, without warning or provocation, Denmark sicced the dogs on us—and Christmas has never been the same. The story begins in Copenhagen, in the early 1950s. Technology developed during WWII gives rise to portable tape recorders.

A radio engineer named Carl Weismann roams the city taping animal sounds—first birdsong, then the barking of dogs. Weismann experiments with his tapes by cutting and pasting them into different patterns, speeding them up and slowing them down, and creating sonic effects that are common today but were revolutionary in those early days of sound on tape. Weismann and record producer Don Charles collaborate on the unlikely notion of dogs barking familiar melodies—“Jingle Bells” among them—with musical accompaniment.

To the innocent ears of the 1950s it sounds like a “Genuine Canine Chorus” trained to bark in tune, as the publicity handouts suggest. Actually, Weismann creates the illusion by splicing together random dog barks. The five performers billed as The Singing Dogs—Dolly the Poodle, terriers Pearl and Pussy, and shepherd dogs Caesar and King—are in reality just stock photos slapped onto the record sleeve. “Jingle Bells” is released in Scandinavia and then England, where it does well enough to catch the attention of RCA Victor Records in America. Riding the wave of “novelty records” made possible by new recording technologies, RCA aggressively promotes “Jingle Bells” while slyly keeping up the pretense that it was performed by a troupe of trained dogs. Thanks to seasonal airplay and an all-out publicity blitz, “Jingle Bells” sells a half-million copies.

Usually, the shelf life of such novelty records is short. But The Singing Dogs gain a new leash on life during the holiday season of 1970, when a New York DJ dusts off “Jingle Bells” and starts the craze all over again. RCA digs the record out of mothballs and rereleases it. Amazingly to all concerned, it sells a million copies. It’s this rerelease that establishes The Singing Dogs as one of the evergreen sounds of the season. And now we’re stuck with it. Weismann and Charles’s pioneering feat of aural trickery survives as a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon of pup culture.

To those who love it, God bless you, every one—you’re a hearty breed.

And to those for whom hearing The Singing Dogs is the equivalent of taking several sharp blows to the head with a croquet mallet, blame it on Denmark.