I can say with a degree of self-assurance that I know dogs. After all, I've grown up with them my entire life. I was not the least bit worried when I got my newest animal companion -- an adopted 8-year-old shepherd-chow mix (and unofficial cuddlebug) named Mush.
Even in the first few weeks of bringing him home, I picked up on the quirks of his personality. He speaks in his own language: a wagging tail, a perked pair of ears, an inquisitive sniff are all cues. When I come home, he greets me with an eager slap of his paws on the ground -- an invitation to play. When I stroll through the park admiring the scenic view, he lags behind, sniffing for the squirrels that dart in the underbrush. To put it simply, he sees the world through a different lens than you or me.
Of course, not all dogs are the same. In fact, I can guarantee that any dog owner will be quick to tell you what makes their furry friend special. The bond we share with them is something unlike any other relationship found in the animal kingdom. We play together, eat together, and share a home together. So we think we know our dogs. But how much do we really know? We consulted three world-renowned experts to better understand them.
"I take in the world one sniff at a time."
If we were to observe the world through the eyes of a dog, what might we see? Alexandra Horowitz set out to answer that very question in her book, "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know." She is currently a psychology professor at Barnard College whose research focuses on animal cognition, particularly dogs.
According to Horowitz, the question is perhaps not what we might see through the eyes of a dog, but what we might smell through the nose of a dog. While we as humans rely primarily on our vision, dogs rely primarily on their sense of smell. Take, for example, a beautiful bouquet of flowers: we see beauty in its color; dogs smell beauty in its scent. Take a close look at your dog's nose: It is lined in tiny bumps that are so individually unique that scientists say that it is comparable to the human fingerprint. The inside of the nose is lined with sensory receptor sites and while humans have 6 million, a sheepdog may have upwards of 200 million! Amazingly, according to Horowitz, dogs can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water -- that’s two Olympic-size swimming pools.
Dogs even have a second "nose" called the vomeronasal organ, which we lack as humans. It opens into the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth, and is used to detect and recognize the odors of other dogs. This would explain your dog’s odd obsession with sniffing and marking the corner fire hydrant, telephone pole, or particularly fragrant bush. For dogs, these places are treated like community boards where markings are treated like notes. In this sense, dogs can smell time –- they can differentiate between a scent of a dog that was there a few days ago and the scent of a dog that was there a mere few minutes ago. Simply put, Horowitz says, "It's mind-boggling." Sniffing is how your dog perceives the world, so let them.
"I wish you could speak my language."
We think we know when our dog is telling us something: a wagging tail means they are happy, a long-held gaze means they are feeling affectionate, and a bark is their way of saying "hello" … right?
Actually, no. A "happy" wagging tail for instance can mean they are feeling insecure (if it swings low to the ground) or even aggression (if swinging rapidly accompanied by tense muscles and dilated eyes). Another commonly misread body language is "doting" eye contact -- uninterrupted eye contact can be viewed as threatening among dogs, especially when accompanied with tense body language.
And as Horowitz will tell you, a lick on the face isn't necessarily a kiss:
Watch your dog closely -- how does he hold his head, body, and tail? Are his ears pressed down flat on his head or perked in alertness? Dogs can express a hundred different facial expressions. Try to read them. The question naturally lends itself to another question: Do dogs understand our spoken language? Does your dog understand a command like "sit," "stay," or "roll over"? For someone who owns a dog like Rico the wonder Border Collie who can identify and fetch over 1,000 objects, the answer would be a resounding "yes." But the science proves that this isn't so simple. Human beings have an auditory range of 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. Compare that to dogs that can detect sounds up to 45 kilohertz (hence the magic of the dog whistle, revealed). For this reason,dogs are particularly sensitive to changes in pitch -- either raised or lowered, including your "baby talk." When you ask your dog, "Do you want to go for a walk?" they are not so fixated on the word "walk" as they are the contextual cues -– particularly, your body movements (leaning towards the leash), as the "prosody" of your speech -- the rhythm, stress and intonation. It is not so much a question of what you say as much as how you say it.
"I live in the now. Don't punish me for something I can't remember."
Living in the present is a cliche, yes, but nonetheless based in a degree of scientific truth. Dr. John Bradshaw is a world-renowned anthrozoologist (one who studies the human-animal relationships) and director of the Anthrozoology Institute based at the University of Bristol. Additionally, he is the author of "Dog Sense." He says that one of the most fundamental differences between a dog’s world and our own is our concept of time.
Some of the peculiar behaviors that are seemingly universal to dogs -- acting anxious when you leave and acting excited when you return home -- is due to their limited awareness of time. "Because dogs live in the present, many find it difficult to cope when their owners leave them at home," says Dr. Bradshaw, speaking of the common separation anxiety. "They seem to be unable to reassure themselves with the thought that their owner will return some time soon. It's almost as if every time their owner leaves the house, they think they've been abandoned." Do dogs remember? It may seem obvious that they do by the happy way they greet you when you come home or the preferred shortcut they take on a walk or how they know when breakfast is ready (as if you could set a clock by a dog's growling tummy). But this is misleading. When we think of memory, we consider it in the autobiographical sense of recalling past events. But dogs are proven to lack this kind of memory -- in fact, they will forget something that happened two minutes ago. This is called episodic memory.
"Because they live almost entirely in the present, their emotional lives are also much more straightforward than ours are. For the same reason, they can't experience guilt, because that relies on recalling a specific event in the past and linking that to something that is happening in the present." Sorry, but that means scolding your dog for peeing on the carpet was all for naught. Your dog cannot make the association between the punishment and an action it has performed perhaps hours earlier.
"Not only does the punishment not stop the dog from doing the same thing again, if repeated day after day it can undermine the dog's feelings about its owner," Dr. Bradshaw says. "Because the dog can't work out why it has been punished, it can become increasingly anxious and uncertain in their relationship."
"I know how you feel more than you realize."
Psychics? Not quite. (Although, your dog's uncanny ability to know when it's time to go to the vet might definitely seem telepathic.) Dogs are not mind readers, but they are attuned to your emotional and mental state more than you realize. And in turn, your emotions affect the dog more than you realize.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is a trained Freudian analyst and the best-selling author of nine books on the emotional life of animals including, "Dogs Never Lie About Love," which has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide.
"We don't realize how sensitive dogs are," he says. "Have you ever walked past a dog without the dog registering your presence? I doubt it. They are so alert to their environment that nothing escapes them. I imagine they feel they need to protect us from our lack of awareness. In fact, this is probably how our relationship with dogs began: They were our sentinels and have remained such."
Consider a typical day with your dog: They will watch you as you move through your daily ritualsfrom the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. They learn what makes you happy (a retrieved ball) or what makes you scowl (a retrieved pair of chewed up shoes). They learn by association, but the reaction timing has to be immediate and repeated over time. This is the reason they won't understand that chewing your shoes leads to a scolding hours later, but they do understand that putting on your coat means a walk in the next few minutes before you ever said a word.
By observing you in your day-to-day life, your dog can perceive when something has changed or is "not right." On a deeper level, dogs know more about us than we often know about ourselves. They watch our mannerisms for cues in our body language (tense posture and dilated pupils that indicate fear) and sniff out changes in our bodies (adrenaline levels that indicate the same). Studies have hypothesized that dogs can literally smell disease, fear, even pregnancy. This is why dogs make the perfect candidates for specialized therapy or simple everyday companions.
We like to think of our canine companions as "little people," but this kind of anthropomorphizing leads to the common misunderstandings we have about our dogs. So how can we "retrain" ourselves as dog owners to be more perceptive to our dogs' needs? Masson has simple advice: "Try spending one day alone with your dog, just you and the dog, walking, shopping, playing, especially in the country. In fact, take your dog out somewhere remote, and spend the day walking with him in forests or along a river bank or in the mountains, and let him or her lead you." It might seem obvious, but the more time you spend with your dog and the more often you consider the world from his point of view -- in reading his body language, being sensitive to his sensory awareness, and letting him indulge in his "doggyness" of sniffing, playing, and running freely -- the stronger your bond will become. Who says you can't teach an old dog owner new tricks?