You pretend to throw a Frisbee in one direction, then toss it in the other. Your dog swiftly shifts gears to catch the disk in mid-air. Or you’re in a bad mood and your pup intuits that a sloppy kiss will cheer you right up.
All dog owners have experienced, and likely marveled at, such examples of their pets’ observation skills. But it shouldn’t surprise us that dogs are adept at gauging our behavior. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, writes in The Well-Adjusted Dog “Thousands of years of cohabitation of dogs with humans have honed dogs’ inborn skills to the point where, even as pups, they can understand what we mean by certain gestures.”
One gesture in particular has attracted the attention of scientists recently: Pointing. According to Brian Hare, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, the ability to track the direction of our arms, fingers, and even eye movements places canine social intelligence at approximately the level of that of a 2½ year old human — and beyond the capabilities of dogs’ likely ancestors, wolves, as well as those of our primate cousins, chimpanzees and great apes. Dogs will look towards the direction where people point — that’s why it’s fun to try to fool them with Frisbee feints — whereas wolves, even those reared by humans from birth, will just look at the hand itself.
The discovery that even puppies have the skill to follow pointing, while wolves raised in captivity by humans do not, suggests that it’s a trait passed along genetically. Stanley Coren, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books about canine cognition, says, “We have been systematically and selectively breeding dogs so they read our body language. If you have two animals and one responds well to your gestures, that one is going to get preferred treatment and will be selected for breeding.”
Indeed, this process can occur rather quickly if nature gets a nudge. In the 1950s, Soviet geneticist Dmitry Belyaev conducted a landmark experiment with silver foxes in Novosibirsk, Siberia. His only criterion for choosing specimens to breed was tameness; the foxes he selected were less afraid of humans than the others. Within eight generations, Belyaev began to see foxes that not only behaved like dogs, but had canine physical characteristics such as floppy ears and curved tails.
Belyaev initially created his tame silver foxes to benefit the fur industry — the wild foxes were too stressed to breed successfully — but some 40 generations later, the animals are attracting scientific attention for their own sake. In 2003, Brian Hare traveled to Novosibirsk to test whether baby foxes that had been bred to be doglike responded to his pointing test the same way that puppies did. Sure enough, Hare discovered, they had the same ability to respond to human signals as domesticated canines.
While it’s clear why humans would breed dogs to do our bidding, we may wonder what’s in it for dogs, genetically speaking. Do they only want food and shelter from us?
No, asserts Dr. Dodman, although selfishness is a common characteristic of all animals, including humans. With dogs, he says, “You have very friendly group dwellers who benefit from a relationship with people. And it’s not just because we feed them.” In his behavioral clinic, Dr. Dodman sees plenty of evidence that dogs enjoy our physical presence. “When we leave them, something like 15 to 17% of American dogs have been described as having separation anxiety,” he says. “They’re not anxious because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They’re anxious because they’re separated from their family, their humans.”
Dogs are also interested in observing us because they are neotenized, according to Dr. Dodman. “Dogs are unique in that they are pack animals that have been bred to look and act childish. They are permanently stuck in canine Peter Pan mode,” he explains. Not only are their physical characteristics similar to those of the young in other canids, but their behavior is also childlike. They are “friendly, dependent, playful, and smiley, and they follow our directions,” Dr. Dodman says. And like children, he adds, “They have a desire to follow the leader, to be like the adults — or in this case, the humans.”
But social intelligence, which sets dogs apart as a species that interacts uniquely with humans, is not the only type of brainpower by which we judge dogs. In Intelligence of Dogs, Coren also discusses “adaptive intelligence,” which measures what dogs can learn to do for themselves and how much they can benefit from interactions with their environment. Unlike social intelligence, adaptive intelligence can differ within a breed.
“Dogs are constantly learning,” Dr. Dodman says. They remember kindnesses and unpleasantness their whole lives, and learn to avoid things that are bad for them.” That includes people, in many cases. Assuming that humans can’t be trusted is not a bad thing, according to Dr. Dodman, unless it’s taken too far. “A dog may take out a class action suit against men with beards,” he says. Furthermore, they may react to things they are averse to in a fashion that humans find socially unacceptable. “Dogs discover that the best way to make something go away is to bark and lunge at it,” Dr. Dodman says. “It works every time.”
Coren calls the third type of canine intelligence “working and obedience intelligence.” It includes a dog’s ability to learn words or commands — a smart dog can learn as many as 150 of them — which serves them well in playtime activities that involve complex routines such as agility; and in the jobs they tend to be offered today (as opposed to sheep herding): leading the blind, say, or conducting search-and-rescue missions. “It’s the closest to what we might call school-learning ability,” Coren observes. “And it is based on what the dog can learn to do when instructed by humans.”
But it is their instinctive intelligence, their ability to read us, that has caused the most confusion about what dogs know and how they know it. In what is sometimes called the “Clever Hans effect” after an early 20th-century German horse whose touted mathematical abilities were later discovered to stem from an ability to read his handler’s body language, dogs were long thought to be solely reactive to humans, and thus not capable of more sophisticated learning.
At the same time, their powers of observation have caused humans to erroneously attribute complex emotions to dogs. Owners often claim, for example, that their dogs feel guilt over their misdeeds. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, conducted experiments to determine if dogs who misbehaved and were scolded by their owners responded differently to tongue-lashings than dogs who didn’t misbehave but whose owners scolded them anyway (they had been told that, when they left the room, their dogs had been bad). The results were conclusive: It was the owners’ signs of anger that had caused the dogs to lower their tails and bow their heads, not any knowledge that they had actually committed an act for which they were accustomed to being punished.
No question. Dogs use their observation skills to modify human behavior. They have learned that, if they look remorseful, we will stop barking at them and treat them with affection again. Luckily, they don’t take their primate studies to a more abstract level. We love dogs because they play Frisbee with us without trying to figure out how our motor skills evolved and because they cheer us up without inquiring if we’ve ever considered Freudian therapy.
A version of this article originally appeared in Your Dog, the newsletter of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. I can’t recall why, but all the references to the pointing experiments, foxes, and Alexandra Horowitz were edited out. Maybe they were too esoteric? Forgive me if you agree. I’m a bit of a geek.
This post makes it clear that dogs have the ability to read us, and gives a sense of why they might want to. The second part of this article will detail some of the mechanisms behind dogs’ mind-reading abilities.
As for the Freud reference at the end: I must have channeled the future. Or maybe it was my resident mind reader, Frankie, who told me…