Can Your Dog Read Your Mind?

By PetMD Editorial on Mar. 16, 2016

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. Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD says, “depending on which research you look at, the origins of dog domestication may have occurred 15,000, 20,000, or more than 30,000 years ago.”

The first canine companions were wolf-like, but they 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, which has allowed them to adapt well into human society. Dr. Coates says “studies have shown that dogs are able to  make decisions based on human body language, verbal commands, and whether or not they are being observed. This is, in part, innate but also reinforced through repeated interactions with people.” 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, including their owners.

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 you grab a towel, run a bath, or grab your car keys for a trip to the vet, your dogs may have made themselves scarce.

On the upside, a dog that sees its owner make for that leash hanging in the closet or grab a favorite toy is 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 (and nose) are still going to prick up, and that saliva will start to flow. What matters is the context and experiences the dog associates with these activities.

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, I see dogs react to many things: the tone, inflection, and the degree of empathy and emotion in our voice, and I do believe even 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 words, actions or body language, which is no small feat, even more impressive is a dog’s ability to sniff out bladder, prostate, colorectal, lung, and breast cancers, among other conditions. With 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, oftentimes exceeding medical tests that are currently in place to do the same. Dr. Coates adds “I’ve come across many stories of patients who say that they finally went to see a doctor because their dogs have repeatedly smelled or licked their arm, abdomen, etc., and they’ve gone on to be diagnosed with a problem in that part of their body.”

And dogs that have been trained can even recognize the symptoms of an epileptic seizure or low blood sugar crisis in diabetics and provide a first line of defense in aiding those whose lives are in danger. Dogs and cats might even have the 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.

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 state of mind, and respond accordingly.

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