Realizing this is my third article in a row primarily related to dogs, I ask for your patience and understanding. Normally I do a much better job of balancing the different species upon which I write and promise to make amends soon. In the interim, I could not pass up a short overview of a fascinating story in the May 22, 2017 issue of Time Magazine by Jeffrey Kluger titled “Secrets of the Canine Mind.”
This story discusses very modern and scientific approaches to finding answers to some of the age-old questions many pet owners have about their dogs. How smart are they? Do they really understand us? Do dogs have a sixth sense that enables them to know when we are not well or when something is amiss in the world around us?
With a U.S. Population of approximately 80 million dogs (nearly 44% of families include at least one dog), our 15,000-year love affair with the canine species is far from weaning. Many dog owners would answer yes to all the questions above, providing much anecdotal evidence. Juliane Kaminski, director of the Dog Cognition Centre at the University of Portsmouth in England, points out that there is no denying the development of a system between people and dogs in which we are able to “attend to each other’s cues.” Although dogs do not have language, they do communicate significantly in other ways including their eyes, bodies and barks. “Dogs pick up on all kinds of things,” says Kaminski.
What is interesting today is that science is pushing harder than ever before to understand empirically that which we know and believe intuitively. Neuroscientists are using MRI’s to explore the inner workings of the canine mind. Canine research facilities have not only been set up in the U.S. at Duke, Tufts and Yale universities, but around the world in Australia, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Italy. The Association for Psychological Science (APS), which typically studies humans, has recently researched and published some intriguing results on the canine mind. They found that dogs can sort of count (choose one of two boards with the greater number of geometric shapes). Dogs can also read human faces and excel at object permanence (the understanding that an object out of sight has not vanished). Such basic world truths take people a lot longer to learn. Subsequently, Yale reported on a study supporting the idea that dogs may be better than 3-to-4-year-old children at learning to ignore bad instructions.
If a species brainpower (software) is ultimately determined relative to its brain (hardware), then one of the most important factors is the size of the brain relative to the size of the body. The human brain is enormous by this measure as it is one-fiftieth (1:50 ratio) the mass of the average human body. Horses have a ratio of 1:600 while the ratio for lions is 1:550. The ratio across all breeds of dogs however, is 1:125. Even though the sizes of the brains differ, MRI dog brain studies indicate strikingly similar structures.
Whereas some studies of one dog helping another have had positive results, studies of dogs aiding people have produced less positive results. “Your dog may notice something’s amiss when you’re sad, but the message they’re sending when they nuzzle may be ‘You’re acting weird, and that scares me,’” says Kaminski. What about dogs that bark when there is a fire in the house? Ontario Western University developmental psychologist William Roberts simply attributes this behavior to being a fear response. It is not that he does not believe the truth of such anecdotal stories, he just thinks they are the exception. Some believe such conclusions greatly shortchange the intellectual capacity of dogs. This is particularly true in terms of theory of mind (ability to understand that humans and other animals have knowledge different from their own) research. Dogs’ ability to innately follow pointing is one such example that has generated considerable interest in recent years. “When two humans do that, they take into account the common ground – a communicative context in which all this makes sense,” says Kaminski. Not all canine researchers are sold on such concepts citing numerous other species including dolphins, elephants and even bats that have this ability.
Object permanence in canines however, is less open to dispute as dogs perform well on both visible and invisible displacement tasks. In a visible-displacement task dogs know where to search first among several containers for an object they witnessed being placed into a specific container. Invisible displacement tasks require dogs to find an object they previously witnessed being placed in a container that is then hidden out of sight (behind a screen). A University of Kentucky study in 2013 discovered that dogs are capable of understanding the characteristics of objects relative to changes in size and color.
What does this indicate regarding the manner in which dogs experience emotions and time in the world? Dogs are one of the best species I have ever seen at living in the moment. At the same time, dogs seem to have an uncanny ability to judge the passage of time. Any dog owner can cite instances in which their dog could tell when it was time for your spouse or you to come home, when it was time to feed them or time to go to bed. Such stories are not merely anecdotal, but have been scientifically proven by videoing dogs via closed-circuit cameras.
In the end, our love for dogs is the primary driver for our continued curiosity about them. As people, we have a tendency to become more like them when in their presence. Both dogs and humans are undeniably better thanks to our long-term continuing relationship.