Sunday, March 15, 2015

Does Your Dog Really Understand You?

Yesterday, Caitlin and I were in the family room. Rob was in the kitchen making coffee, when he suddenly bellowed, "SHIT!"

I didn't investigate because  Rob's kitchen disasters are usually deemed to be my fault. I left something teetering where it was certain to come crashing down, or where it was obvious that he would hit it with his elbow--and I didn't want to initiate a discussion about it.

Caitlin was clearly thinking along the same lines. She sat so hard and fast, it must have hurt her bottom, and looked up at me with a confused expression, as if to ask, "What did I do wrong?"

I didn't notice which way Caitlin was looking when she obeyed Rob's "command," but according to a recent study at Sussex University, she should have been looking to the left, indicating that the right hemisphere of her brain had responded to the tone of Rob's voice.. Both dogs and humans, apparently process the emotional content of speech with the right hemisphere.

Do you want to go to the park? Mango Doucleff, of San Francisco, responds to her favorite command by perking up her ears and tilting her head.
He listens for emotion with his left ear and meaning with his right ear.
Caitlin and I spent quite a bit of time on potty training when she was a puppy. Once, when she was about 4 months old, she followed me into the bathroom. I chattily informed her, "This is where I go potty."

She promptly squatted, and peed on the carpet. This time, if the study is right, she would have been looking to the right, showing that her left hemisphere had responded to the meaning of my words. I didn't notice which way she was looking. I was too busy silently bellowing "SHIT!

Careful what you say. Your dog is listening/
Neurobiologist Attila Andics doesn't think there's much evidence that dogs actually understand our meaning.

Dogs were good therapists even before we knew this
Every dog owner could tell him that there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that they get more than we expect.

About 20 years ago, the bane of my life was a tomcat named McGee. He belonged to a neighbor, but he'd been born at out house and claimed our property as part of his territory. Almost daily, he'd sneak into the house and spray the walls and furniture, and I'd have to crawl around sniffing the walls trying to find the pee. I was complaining about him one day to a friend. When I said his name, our Staffordshire terrier, Ben, started barking and charging around the room, apparently hunting for the cat. I was amazed. I had no recollection of talking about McGee in front of him, and had no idea that he knew the cat's name. But a little further investigation proved conclusively that he did.

Ben would have had personal reasons to remember McGee. A month or so earlier, Ben had poked his nose into a laundry basket where McGee, unbeknownst to any of us, was sleeping, and had his nose slashed. Ever since then, he approached laundry baskets with great caution, always jerking his head back as soon as his nose got within striking distance. Also, McGee liked to taunt Ben from the back yard, meowing loudly, then sauntering across the garden as Ben hurtled through the dog flap, springing lightly to the top of the fence at the very last second.

Of course, once our boys realized that Ben knew McGee's name, they made his life a misery, shouting out, "McGee, Ben! McGee!" whenever the mood struck them, and laughing uproariously as Ben raced into the back yard.

In a study that I'll write about tomorrow, it was found that dogs quickly learn to quit taking cues from people who have proved untrustworthy. But Ben never did. 
Image result for charlie brown football
Charlie Brown never learned, either.
Dogs can attain an impressively large vocabulary. Chaser, a border collie is famous for knowing over 1000 words. She understands both nouns and verbs and has a fair understanding of syntax. Her owner has spent over five hours a day training her. But Dr.Brian Hare, founder of the Dognition Project at Duke University, thinks most dogs could do as well. He has developed a series of games to play with your dog that are designed to help you discover your own dog's unique genius as well as his personal learning style.

Dogs love us They pay close attention to us, and we now know that they have specialized brain cells that allow them to empathize with people and to learn from them by watching what they do. According to  Dr. Gregory Burns they also have a "theory of mind," something that until recently only humans and (possibly) the great apes were thought to possess.

In other words, they know we can think, and they think they know what we're thinking.

We'd better watch out.