Unraveling the 20-Year Mystery of How 'Who Let the Dogs Out' Became a Global Phenomenon
A college football chant from the mid-1980s. A bunch of lyrics scribbled on a Little Caesars bread bag. A punk rock hairdresser named Keith. These are just a few of the seemingly random, but entirely vital, components of Baha Men’s 2000 hit "Who Let the Dogs Out"—a tune Rolling Stone once dubbed the third most annoying song of all time (only Los Del Rio's "Macarena" and Black Eyed Peas's "My Humps" ranked higher).
It's been a full 20 years since the novelty hit’s original release, and its impossibly infectious hook is no doubt still lodged firmly inside your brain. It was practically inescapable in 2000, after all, popping up on the big screen (in movies as varied as Rugrats in Paris, Rat Race, and Men in Black II), at political rallies, and during pretty much every sporting event with an unimaginative PA announcer.
Even the Grammys, the music industry’s most prestigious awards ceremony, wasn’t immune to the song's begrudging charm. The single beat out J.Lo, Enrique Iglesias, and Moby to win the Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2001.
Although "Who Let the Dogs Out" never climbed higher than number 40 in America, it topped the charts Down Under, peaked at number 2 in the UK, and sold millions of copies worldwide. But as the old saying goes, "where there’s a hit, there’s a writ." So by the time Baha Men were asking "Who Let the Dogs Out" at the 2000 World Series, the band had become entangled in a far more intriguing, canine-free mystery: Who was ultimately responsible for the song in the first place?
Who, What, Where, Why, and When?
Baha Men, the Bahamian outfit who turned "Who Let the Dogs Out" into a popular query, never proclaimed to have written the track. In fact, according to member Dyson Knight, it took some convincing to even get the band to record it once they heard 1998's “Doggie,” the much more frenetic, soca-infused original version of the song by Trinidadian artist Anslem Douglas.
But Steve Greenberg, Baha Men's manager—who had previously steered Hanson to chart-topping glory—was adamant that “Who Let the Dogs Out” would reverse the band's fortunes. The group had just been dumped by Mercury Records after selling fewer than 800 copies of their 1998 album Doong Spank.
Greenberg had only stumbled across the track himself following a meeting with Jonathan King, one of Britain’s more eccentric musical mavericks. King had given the carnival anthem a trashy Euro-techno makeover—complete with dodgy Caribbean accent—under one of his many baffling aliases: Fat Jakk and His Pack of Pets.
Greenberg openly told King it was one of the worst things he had ever heard, yet somehow he still recognized its hit-making potential.
Never afraid of blowing his own trumpet, King has tried to take credit for the song’s subsequent global domination. However, King's hairdresser can claim to be equally—if not more—instrumental in its success. Keith Wainwright, owner of the punk favorite London salon Smile, alerted King to “Who Let the Dogs Out” on one of the many mixtapes he compiled after each jaunt to his beloved Trinidad and Tobago.
Barking out the woofs on this occasion was Anslem Douglas, the man who has since argued that the seemingly throwaway ditty should be viewed as a bona fide feminist anthem. Although there’s little dispute about who wrote its man-bashing verses ("Get back gruffy, mash scruffy/Get back you flea-infested mongrel"), several people have come forward to claim ownership of the song's earworm of a chorus.
Who Put the Woof in the Woof, Woof, Woof, Woof?
For Douglas's part in the "Who Let the Dogs Out" mystery, he admits that he originally heard the song's famous refrain from his brother-in-law, who once worked for a Canadian radio show. “Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof, woof, woof” just happened to be a jingle created by Patrick Stephenson and Leroy Williams, two producers who worked for that very station. As a result, Douglas was forced to acknowledge their input in an out-of-court settlement.
Yet the year before that contested jingle, 20 Fingers—a tongue-in-cheek production team famed for their top 20 hit “Short Dick Man”—released “You’re a Dog,” a handbag house anthem that utilized almost the exact same phrase.
In 1992, teenagers Brett Hammock and Joe Gonzalez, a.k.a. Miami Boom Productions, penned a similar hook on the back of a Little Caesars bread bag. Their case for being the true originators is made even stronger by the evidence of two floppy disks filled with recordings of the love-to-hate chant.
There's also a theory that neatly brings things full circle. Baha Men’s cover became an MLB favorite at the turn of the century, with the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets even arguing over which franchise adopted it first. A video taken at Austin’s Reagan High School suggests its call-and-response was also first introduced in a much earlier sporting context: a football pep rally way back in 1986.
A Dogged Journey Toward the Truth
The slightly farcical, if hugely fascinating, narrative around the song is pored over in even greater detail in the 2019 documentary Who Let the Dogs Out. Directed by Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale, I Am Chris Farley), the hugely entertaining film sees artist/curator Ben Sisto deliver a TED Talk-style lecture about his eight-year journey to uncover the truth about the song's origins, interspersed with interviews with all the key players.
So who does Sisto, the self-described world's leading expert on “Who Let the Dogs Out,” believe is most responsible for the song's success? “Without a doubt, it’s Steve Greenberg," Sisto tells Mental Floss. "Steve formed S-Curve Records to release Baha Men’s version. It was his marketing acumen, industry ties, and honest dedication to the band that culminated in the track exploding. Steve just worked it, hard, from every angle.”
Sisto has a theory about why the single struck such a big chord with listeners, too. “Baha Men’s version opens a cappella. The vocals have a gravity that stops everything else in the room. Before having time to consider what 'Who Let the Dogs Out' even means, the listener is transported to a world of pop, junkanoo, and barking that's both catchy and annoying, head-bobbing and soul-screaming," he says. "It also seems people can’t decide on exactly what the non-question means. What does it want from us? It’s as if the Uncertainty Principle itself was a pop song. In a way, I think it’s that confusion that hooks people. It sounds like Doritos taste: Unnatural, but undeniable.”
Sisto has accepted that the origins of "Who Let the Dogs Out" could go back even further than Greenberg's interpretation of the song, but appears to have brought his quest to an end for now. Which means we may never truly know who really did allow those pesky mutts to escape.