How dogs read our thoughts, spot when we lie and fall in love with their owners
Capable of feeling jealousy and sorrow, as well as the love and adoration that we have bathed in for centuries, the dog is a creature like no other for John Lewis-Stempel.
Man’s best friend is also man’s oldest friend. According to some archaeologists, the gray wolf – the ancestor of Fido and Fluffy – was tamed 30,000 BC. Other experts argue that this timescale is barking the wrong tree, and that the wolf was brought back from the cold of nature around 12,000 years ago. Regardless, the dog was the first domesticated creature and its frame heralded the Anthropocene, the time when humans manipulated nature, rather than nature manipulating them. When we, and indeed Rover, left the noble savagery.
The setback that dogs have been domesticated on is an accusation of how little we really understand our canine companions, of whom there are a billion in the world and 10 million in the UK. It wasn’t until the last decade that the canine brain’s innermost workings were truly revealed and, even then, in mere bite-sized chunks.
Canis lupus familiaris and the wolf shares 99.9% of its mitochondrial DNA – which is why the family pet retains the wolverine’s ability to sniff substances at a part per trillion rate and will gobble up everything. However, that little bit of genetic difference makes Lassie a creature you want to be sitting in front of the fire and the terrible Toothed Executioner. Little Red Riding Hood the creature you are hiding behind a tree. Dogs, on chromosome six, have three genes that code for hyper-sociability – humans have something similar. Wolves do not have this genetic peculiarity.
Dogs’ affinity for human interaction is thus encoded in their DNA, and chemicals in the brain help strengthen the human-canine bond. When you look into your dog’s eyes and Rex looks back at him, both brains – the dog’s and the owner’s – flood the hormone oxytocin, which produces a positive emotion. Love, in fact. This love, in addition to being categorical, is directed.
When dogs, in an MRI experiment conducted at Emory University in the United States, sniffed a rag soaked in their owner’s scent, activity increased in their caudate nucleus – a reward center in the brain involved in emotional attachment – but this did not increase when a Stranger’s Scent was used instead. It is therefore not surprising that Argus, Odysseus’ faithful dog, “wagged his tail” when his master returned after an absence of 20 years. Or this prince, during World War I, followed his path independently of London to join his master in the trenches of the Western Front. (This extraordinary episode was then verified by the RSPCA.)
A dog’s devotion is… stubborn. Oh, and don’t mind the mean guys who say Labradors are only there for the tasty treats. In lab tests, it was found that dogs derive as much pleasure from social rewards, such as praise, as they do from snacks. Good dogs!
Canine emotions go beyond love. Traditionally, it was believed that the emotion of jealousy only occurs in primates. Recent scientific studies have shown that dogs feel it too. Ditto heartbreak – although that surely comes as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Edinburgh memorial to Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Burrow who, according to the story, spent 14 years guarding his master’s grave.
Empathy is another complex emotion that dogs are capable of feeling. Psychologists have claimed contagious yawning is linked to empathy in humans – those who yawn are believed to empathize with the initial yawner’s feelings of boredom, fatigue or stress. The dogs tested yawned after their owners did, but were immune to yawning from strangers.
The key to understanding canines is co-evolution. As humans and wolves began to work and live together, wolves who socialized well with humans passed on their desirable and desired genes. However, the two species have also “ rewired ” each other, which is part of the reason why neurotic shadows can be helped by antidepressant drugs. This “rewiring” particularly affected the dog’s IQ.
Pooch is derived from puppy, itself derived from the French word doll, for doll. Your bowwow will appreciate this lexicographical snippet because dogs understand your words and not just, as is commonly assumed, your tone of voice. This is because a border collie named Chaser has learned the names of 1,022 different toys, and when ordered to pick up a specific toy, she gets the right toy about 95 percent of the time.
More recently, Chaser has learned to recognize verbs: she knows the difference between picking up something and putting her paw on it. Further laboratory analyzes of the canine brain, this time at Loránd University in Hungary, indicate that when dogs hear human voices – as opposed to other noises – a specific area of the brain lights up, as in dogs. humans.
Dogs are also adept at reading wordless humans, often better than chimpanzees. A dog led by a hand pointed at a treat will investigate 85% of the time; Cheeta, Tarzan’s sidekick, could do it… sometimes. No other species can read human gestures as well as dogs.
Impressively, dogs can “read” human emotions as they appear on the human face, even in photographs; when dogs look at snapshots of human faces, they have aversive responses to mouths and eyes that look angry, but not happy ones. (Turns out humans are less adept at interpreting dog expressions: that guilty look the dog takes after being caught raiding the kitchen trash can? Tell your dog some pork pies . According to a team from Kyoto University, Fifi can tell if you’re lying to her Don’t worry, untrustworthy owners get unruly dogs.
Experts have determined that a dog’s average IQ is about as sophisticated as that of a 2.5-year-old baby. Some breeds are smarter than others, with Border Collies at the top of the scale and Afghans at the bottom. Then again, maybe the stupidity of the Afghan dog is a sign of superior intelligence? I once spent a day looking after an Afghan lord. Feed him. Shit picked it up. I went to get the frisbee for this. Hunted under the sofa for his favorite toy. I worked like a dog. I was his dog’s body. Who was the fool and who was the intellect?
Oh, and forget the everlasting adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” for that is deceptive dogma. Dogs are “open learners”. Last year an abandoned elderly golden labrador fell into our home in rural France. Within a week, she had specialized in English orders and toilet label. (This didn’t make Inspector Maigret and his pipe realize that she had been kept outside in a yard all her previous life.) She also learned her new name – Honey, because she is so sweet – and those of his new family, whether they walked on two or four legs.
Honey’s success as a mature student is yet another gripe on the age-old question of who’s smarter, the dog or the cat. Don’t take my word for it: Scientists have now counted neurons in the cerebral cortex of both species and deduced that canines are more “cognitively capable”. That weird noise? The dogs and their owners howl with triumphant laughter. Sorry, Tiddles.
Those who grew up with dogs probably already know what breed they want to own, and have been for years.
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Nothing is too good for our furry friends, as demonstrated by this selection of utterly wonderful shopping options – even if they are slightly disturbed.