“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.”– Orhan Pamuk
If only dogs could talk, they could tell us a world of truths about ourselves. We might not like what they have to say, mind you. Human languages are so incredible in so many ways, and yet they fall short when it comes to communicating with animals. And yet, dogs understand us. But we’re still struggling to understand them.
Who domesticated who?
Let’s get a bit of background about the human-dog connection. We first domesticated dogs somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, although some say that dogs domesticated us. A trick of the human mind perhaps, to build up our own feelings of self esteem? Who knows. The point is this: dogs don’t need to know our language to know us well. Having lived with us for thousands of years, they have done nothing but observe us, day in and day out.
Have you ever found yourself hurrying your morning coffee or a meal because your best friend is giving you ‘the death stare from hell’ from across the room? Yep, thought so. Or reaching into the packet for ‘just one more’ treat, because, ‘awww look at that face’? Thought so too. They’ve got us wrapped around their little paws!
“You will give me this piece of naan bread!”
Are Dogs Great Mind Readers?
So, how do dogs perform these canny Jedi mind tricks? Well, they have watched us for thousands of years. They watch us when we’re getting dressed, they watch us in social situations, they watch us on the phone and they watch us when we’re at rest. Dogs aren’t as busy as we are, and they have evolved to understand a bit about how our minds work.
Here comes the science…
Juliane Kaminski, in her research into animals’ social cognition skills, observed that dogs definitely understand our attention states. She tested this with food, and found that dogs steal food more often when the human in the room isn’t looking than when they are looking. So, they understand that we can’t see them when our eyes are pointed away. You might think this is obvious, but other animals don’t have this ability. Our so-called closest relatives, chimpanzees, can’t do this. She also discovered that dogs respond to social cues like pointing to where the food is, but chimps don’t. Finally, she researched puppies to check if the dogs were learning these abilities, but the puppies were able to do these things too. This means that dogs have evolved to be able to pick up on these cues from a very young age — how incredible!
After thousands of years living by our side, our furry friends have become mind readers, in the psychological sense, in that they can infer something about our mental states.
“Take me for a walk NOW”
Dogs Are Great Teachers, If We Know How To Listen
In a previous blog, I wrote about what dogs can teach us about our own emotional states, and how we can use that for self-observation. This is a really helpful tool, because dogs do reflect a lot back at us about our own behaviour, and it ain’t always pretty, but it’s accurate. I definitely think they’d have a few home truths to tell us, and as I said earlier, it might actually be better if we didn’t hear them in words. We already got the message. They’re communicating with us, even if we aren’t conscious of it.
But, this is a very human-centric way to look at things, and perhaps I’m anthropomorphising. They have certainly adapted to us, but what about them? What do we know about our own best friends? There has been a lot of research done on dog behaviour, and yet so much knowledge is still missing. They have evolved with us; have we evolved with them too? Perhaps. The average dog owner though, I’m guessing, probably doesn’t know a great deal of dog Psychology, and I think that’s why so many human-dog relationships go awry.
“Let’s get out of here”
“That the dog is a loyal, true, and affectionate friend must be gratefully admitted, but when we come to consider the psychical nature of the animal, the limits of our knowledge are almost immediately reached” – Sir John Lubbock. (1889, p. 272)
So, without delving deep into the research of dog psychology, I think it’s a great idea to simply observe your dog. Most of us definitely can’t spend as much time observing them as they do us, but try your best to pay attention to their body movements, expressions and behaviour. They do communicate, it’s just in a different way to us. If we make more effort to listen, we just might learn something about them, as well as something about ourselves.
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About the author
Vaila Erin is a writer, lover of animals, and a bit of a nomad. For her, life is about stories — observing yourself and others so that you can laugh, cry and entertain each other with its absurdities. Connect with her at vailaerin.com or via LinkedIn.