Last week, in How Dogs Read Us, Part 1, I discussed some studies that explore the way dogs decode our signals, an ability that is passed along genetically. This second section, adapted from the same article for Your Dog newsletter, addresses the fact that not all dogs are equally skilled at reading signals and not all humans are equally good at conveying their intentions.
In his Intelligence of Dogs, psychologist Stanley Coren terms the type of inherited social intelligence that helps dogs read us as “instinctive.” Varying from breed to breed, he says, instinctive intelligence determines a dog’s ability to do a certain “job.” So just as some dogs are naturally good at herding, others are particularly adept at reading their companion humans.
Coren gives the example of Spaniels, explaining, “The ‘span’ in Spaniel stands for Spain, even though none of these dogs were created by the Spanish, because at the time the breed got started, the great lovers of the world were supposed to be from that country.” Thus being loving and affectionate — “sucky-faced” as Dr. Coren puts it — was the prized characteristic for which Spaniels were bred.
In some breeds, the ability to read humans’ signals is part of the skill set required for other tasks. “Retrievers have been bred specifically to stay close to us and watch our faces,” Coren says. “That’s their job, and it’s quite different from that of any of the other sporting dogs.”
Members of the toy group, whose main job description is lap cuddling, are naturally the best at guessing our moods, while terriers fall at the other end of the observation spectrum. “Terriers have the least social skills,” Coren says. “They’re bred to work solo, to go down into a hole by themselves to get badgers.”
(Good thing Frankie can’t read; otherwise he’d use the terrier defense for every act of civil disobedience.)
But dogs of all breeds need to decode human behavior to some extent. How do they accomplish that? To a large degree, through their superior senses, particularly vision.
According to Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, dogs’ color vision is not as good as ours; dogs don’t see red very well, for example. They can discern movement far better than we can, however. Dr. Dodman says, “I know a German shepherd that could leap three feet into midair and snap a wasp in half.”
This gives dogs an edge, both when it comes to the big picture, such as our posture, and the details of our fine motor movements. Dr. Dodman notes that dogs often give men more respect because they have a more forward stance and more assertive gestures, whereas woman are frequently more tentative.
That’s not to suggest dogs are without body language barriers. Although they take species differences into account, especially those of humans they know, dogs generally interpret our gestures in the same way as they interpret those of their fellow canines. That’s fine when humans and canines share the same expressions: a clenched mouth meaning tension, say, an open mouth indicating relaxation or sidelong glances signifying distrust.
It’s when our signals differ that trouble can occur. A wide-eyed stare is regarded as a threat by a dog, for example (it’s also considered rude in some human cultures). And if a human’s smile is particularly toothy, the “teeth baring” might be read as a sign of aggression.
Coren notes that these signal differences are particularly problematic when it comes to children. “Everything kids do is wrong,” he says. “They stare at dogs, run at them and reach out their hands with open fingers. To a dog, an outstretched hand looks look like mouth with teeth.” We shouldn’t be surprised when dogs growl and snap at them. In fact, “The wonder of it all is that they don’t eat our kids,” Coren says.
What saves them? Children tend to move in an awkward way that confuses dogs, according to Coren. Because dogs don’t read them as normal adults, they are less threatened by them.
Another thing that likely saves children from more attacks is that they smell young, thus bringing out dogs’ protective instincts. Which leads to another important way that dogs read us: scent. Scientists haven’t yet come up with chemical formulas for human emotions but, as the cliche about the smell of fear suggests, different physiological states doubtless have distinct olfactory signatures.
And with their advanced senses of smell, dogs would have the edge on recognizing those signatures. If some dogs can predict the onset of epileptic attacks and diagnose diseases such as cancer by the way humans smell, why wouldn’t we think they could sniff out depression too? In response, dogs bred to please might behave in ways that have produced mood-elevation cues from their humans in the past — a face lick producing a laugh, for example. Those whose jobs don’t include psychological counseling — yes, Frankie, I’m talking about you — might well recognize our blue funks but dismiss them as “Not my problem.”
* This sucky-faced Spaniel is the charming Chloe, companion and travel-product tester for the equally charming Mary-Alice Pomputius of Dog Jaunt.