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Can Your Dog Read Your Mind?

by David F. Kramer


Man’s Best Friend.


That’s more than the stuff of literature, film, and greeting cards. For thousands of years, dogs have left an indelible mark on our culture and history, not only by scratching on our doors or chewing on our shoes, but by maneuvering their way into our collective hearts and minds.


Our canine companions have become more than pets, they’re family. They seem to want to comfort us when we’re sad, protect us when we’re frightened, play with us when we’re happy, and spend the rest of their time right by our sides, ready to respond to any emotion or situation we might experience. But the question remains: Can your dog read your mind?


It’s no surprise that dogs were among the first animals to be domesticated by man. Nailing down exactly when this occurred is difficult, but scientists have postulated it to be between 13 to 30 thousand years ago. Sheep and goats followed a few thousand years after that. And as for cats, they didn’t come into play until about 7,000 years ago, when people began to cultivate and store grain and mice became an issue.


The first canine companions were wolves, which eventually evolved into the breeds of today through both domestication and purposeful breeding. The earliest “dog bones” (as opposed to remains that were clearly wolves) have been unearthed throughout Asia and Europe, suggesting that this business of living alongside dogs was fairly widespread throughout the world. Clearly, this domestication was equally advantageous for dogs as well as mankind.


As pack animals, dogs have participated in a social hierarchy from the start. As the saying goes, there are alpha dogs that run things, beta dogs helping to support this structure, and omega dogs, that just seem to be along for the ride. Once a dog leaves this wild setting for a human home, this adopted family essentially becomes the new pack, with all of the same structures and rules in place.


Alpha dogs assert their dominance through behavior. They might place a paw on other dogs, nip at lower caste members, or maintain eye contact, as well as through circling behaviors and urine marking. Subservient dogs will roll over and expose their bellies or even just lower their heads to an alpha. While humans might view a dog rolling over as a request for affection, or a dog lowering its head after making a mess in the house or some other undesired behavior as a sign of guilt, these are all common submissive actions meant to show alphas just who’s boss.


So, your dog doesn’t know exactly why knocking over your trash cans and rooting through them is wrong, they simply know that it IS wrong based on being chastised for it in the past.  Of course, any dog owner knows that this knowledge doesn’t always stem this behavior, but it provides a unique perspective into just what dog training is all about: controlling behavior through reward and, where necessary, punishment.


Studies have shown these traits to be innate in dogs and doesn’t seem to be related to human-trained behaviors. So, this ability seems to have nothing to do with domestication, it just comes with being, well, a dog. So, the behaviors that we might erroneously call “mind reading” or, at the very least, empathy, are simply how dogs interact with the outside world, and not just their owners.


When it comes to responding to their owners’ emotions, dogs run the gamut, from the most subtle to the most profound displays of sadness, fear, or happiness. When we’re sad, not only will a dog share in this sadness, but it will make overtures to placate these emotions, even as far as licking away a person’s tears. Scientific studies have shown that a dog will respond to the sadness of a stranger more often than to a person who appears to be happy or content. Clearly, a dog recognizes the body language and the sights and smells that come when a person is feeling sad.

At the very least, most dogs will seek to comfort their owners merely by being close by. In extreme cases of sadness, or even clinical depression, dogs may share in these feelings at the detriment of their own health. A dog dealing with the increasingly depressive behavior of its owner might eventually refuse food or suspend enjoyable activities completely.


While it might be premature to refer to these actions as empathic, at the very least scientists have theorized that dogs interpret sadness to be a unique emotion in their humans, even if they might not exactly understand what it is or what’s causing it.


When we’re afraid, a dog’s instincts will turn towards protection, and smaller breeds of dogs often opt to share in our fear, whether of the unknown or some physical threat. In these cases, dogs will turn to their owners for cues as to how to react in a situation. Fear is one of the emotions that most of the animal kingdom experiences, so saying that dogs can “smell fear” does indeed have some basis in reality.


On average, a dog operates on the mental level of a two-year-old child. That makes for a vocabulary of about 160 words, give or take, and a pretty good grasp of body language. So it’s no accident that you might find your dog to be a permanent member of the “terrible twos” club—quick to try to get away with some mischief whenever your back is turned.


Much like small children, dogs also have a sense of fairness, and some would say a heightened sense. You want to break that cookie into two pieces for us to share? That sounds great, but let’s just see your documentation from the U.S. Department of Weights and Measures to let me know that things are on the up and up. A dog that sees a another dog get a reward for the same behavior while he goes without isn’t going to go down without a fight, or at the very least, some pouting and whining, As with so many other dog behaviors, this goes back to the distribution of food to a pack from a successful hunt.


When it comes to responding to human behavior, dogs employ a three-fold method: cues, context, and experience. Dogs are keen to expressions of the non-verbal variety. In these cases, dogs have the ability to anticipate and interpret our intentions, rather than relying strictly on verbal commands. Things like gesturing, pointing, or even just gazing at an object or situation all give dogs clues as to what we have in mind. Long before a dog’s owner will grab a towel, run a bath, or grab their car keys for a trip to the vet, our dogs are usually two steps ahead of us, making themselves scarce.


On the upside, a dog that sees its owner make for that leash hanging in the closet or grabbing a favorite toy are primed and ready for a nice walk or play session. Even if you’re just opening a can of beef stew for your own lunch, those canine ears are still going to prick up, and that saliva will start to flow. The difference is the context and experiences the dog associates with these activities.


As a dog’s family becomes its new pack, any changes made in the family dynamic will also affect them. Just as older siblings might react with jealousy when a new baby is brought into the home and they’re no longer the center of attention, your dog is just as likely to be affected by these same feelings. What’s more, these new behaviors can begin long before the baby even arrives, sometimes soon after their owners become pregnant.


When a woman becomes pregnant, she will go through many hormonal and physical changes, many of which are very apparent and some which are very subtle. Almost immediately, a pregnant owner will begin to smell differently, and while the prospect of a new baby in the home is a joyous human occasion, it can be, at first, distressing for a pet.


In the latter stages of pregnancy, a dog might become extra protective of an expectant mother and spend extended periods of time at her side. A dog might even go the extremes of being wary of other family members when it comes to their dealings with the mother. Once the baby arrives, it’s always necessary to divide time between the dog and the new baby to avoid feelings of resentment on the dog’s part.


Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania says that it really all comes down to the five senses.


“As a dog owner myself, dogs react to many things: the tone, inflection, and the degree of empathy and emotion in our voice, and I do believe even in the look on our faces. Dogs have the same senses we have. However, some, like smell, are better than ours. The degree to whether or not they can actually understand what we want them to do is a question that many have pondered.  As a veterinarian, I do believe that dogs have an intellect.  I also strongly believe that intelligence is breed-specific and is governed by genetics and a little bit of training and socialization. “


When it comes to dogs being able to plumb the depths of the human condition, one case continues to be the most staggering: a dog’s ability to detect disease.


Forget being able to interpret and react to their owner’s moods, which is no small feat, but even more impressive is a dog’s heightened sense of smell, which enables them to sniff out bladder, prostate, colorectal, lung, and breast cancers, among other conditions.


So, in the same manner in which police and militarily trained dogs are able to detect bomb components and narcotics, they could be just as valuable in a medical setting. With a little training and exposure to the breath and urine odors associated with a disease, dogs have been shown to detect these conditions as much as 98% of the time, far exceeding medical tests that are currently in place to do the same.


Dogs that have been trained as service animals for the blind and deaf have also been trained to recognize the physical symptoms of an epileptic seizure or stroke and can provide a first line of defense in aiding those whose lives are in danger.


Dogs and cats might even have the additional ability to sense when humans are close to death, as evidenced by pet companions in nursing homes and hospices opting to curl up with a patient who is about to die. Dogs observing a period of mourning when their owners die, or refusing to leave a gravesite or body for extended periods of time, has been well documented.


While it’s unlikely that we’ll soon be scheduling our medical appointments with a Cocker Spaniel, the results of this research shouldn’t be ignored. As we are finding with so many other modern, first-world problems, Mother Nature has again provided us with an undoubtedly ancient solution.


So, while the jury’s still out on whether your pooch will one day be the next Amazing Kreskin, it’s comforting to know that he or she will be there interpret your many human moods, and respond accordingly.





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