Have you ever felt that dogs can read people’s minds? Does your dog get clingy when you’re depressed or feeling sick? When you and your partner argue, does your dog go and hide?
Our dogs aren’t clairvoyant, but they do have an uncanny ability to sense our emotions. How do they do it?
The truth about dogs
Dogs and humans have very similar social systems. We both live in tight-knit families (or packs) who protect each other and are very loyal. We both have a complex language of facial expressions, body posture, and vocalizations that promote bonding. At some point in history, early dogs learned to decode human nonverbal language. The better they anticipated our thoughts and feelings, the more they were rewarded with food, shelter and affection.
We’re often amazed and even mystified that our dogs are so astute. But why shouldn’t they be? As Brian Kilcommons, the renowned dog trainer and author, points out: What else do they have to do but watch us all day, studying our every move? “Is she happy?” your dog might wonder. “Is she mad? Should I run for cover?” With their fates so tied to our every whim, our dogs are wise to monitor our moods. A good mood might mean an extra snuggle or a game of fetch. A bad mood might mean scary loud noises and a day spent hiding under the bed. It makes sense that dogs would watch us so closely, as our changing moods give essential clues as to what is about to happen next.
And dogs are great watchers. Better than humans, some might say. According to Patricia McConnell, an author and animal behaviorist: “Your dog is probably a far better observer than you are. We humans pay so much attention to language that it often interferes with our ability to see what’s happening around us.”
But in some ways we rely too heavily on what we can see. Our visual system is so highly evolved that it tends to override the more primitive senses of smell, touch and hearing—those which are highly developed in dogs. We’re often not aware of what we’re missing.
And finally, we can’t see ourselves. Your friends, family and dogs know your habitual movements, expressions, and utterances, says McConnell, but you may not. Make a video of yourself interacting with your dog, and you’ll be amazed at what you notice.
Our dogs can read us like a book. It’s commonly said that around 90% of human communication is nonverbal (and only 10% is verbal). Your posture, head carriage, gait, and of course facial expressions speak volumes about your mood and motivation. Act happy and your dog will wag excitedly and present her favorite toy for you to toss. Hang your head in sorrow and she’ll slink over and affectionately press her head in your lap.
Dogs are especially adept at reading facial expressions. Try this mirroring experiment: Sit facing your dog and make and exaggerated happy face. Your dog will light up as well: big grin, relaxed ears, open facial expression. Now, furrow your brow and look stern. Your dog will recoil, avert her eyes, and look guilty as charged.
A dog's understanding of body language probably explains their uncanny ability to find the one person in the room who doesn’t like dogs. A fearful person tends to tense up and stare. Dogs tend to misread a fearful person’s behavior as a “challenge” posture, like that of a dominant dog squaring up to an opponent. This immediately puts a dog on the defensive.
Not only are dog's ears more sensitive than yours, but they can also hear a wider range of frequencies. If you’ve ever wondered how your dog seems to anticipate your arrival home, this is probably how. Their radar ears pick up the subtle sounds of cars braking, footfalls on the sidewalk, the jingle of keys. These sounds may be nearly inaudible to us.
Your dog may not understand every word you say, but she knows your tone of voice. Dogs can hear the different inflections in your voice that mean that you’re happy, anxious, sad, tentative, or angry. This is why your dog hangs her head and skulks away the minute you discover the overturned kitchen trash. To an astute dog, a sound is worth a thousand words.
A dog’s sense of smell is approximately one million times more sensitive than ours. Our dogs probably experience us as a composite smell “picture” as unique and complex as our visual likeness. Subtle changes in a person’s scent are obvious to your pet, just as you might notice a person has lost some weight or got a new haircut.
This may be one way that dogs detect illness. When you are sick, your metabolism changes and different chemicals appear in your breath. A dog can sense this. Changes in breath chemicals may be one way that seizure-alert dogs recognize that a person is about to have a seizure.
It’s sometimes said that “dogs can smell fear,” and this is probably true. When you’re anxious, you start to perspire lightly. It may not be visible, and you can’t smell it, but a dog can. Kelly Whitney, a veterinary technician from North Attleboro, MA, describes what happened when she and her black lab encountered a stranger emerging from the woods one summer evening. “My dog is usually so friendly and loves everyone. But she clearly didn’t like that man. He seemed friendly enough. But as he approached, the dog bared her teeth and gave a low growl. He backed off and went the other way. I was pretty relieved.” Kelly’s dog must have sensed her anxiety even though no words were exchanged. Was it something in her scent that the dog detected?
Dogs can sense our emotions because in a way, they know us better than we do!
Dodman, Nicholas. The Dog Who Loved Too Much. New York: Bantam, 1997.
Kilcommons, Brian & Wilson, Sarah. Good Owners, Great Dogs. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
McConnell, Patricia B. For the Love of a Dog. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005
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