Going to the Dogs

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA – There are about 70 million dogs living in human homes in the United States. That’s 10 million more dogs than children under the age of 15. The pattern in other Western nations is similar. Roughly 40% of house dogs are allowed to sleep on their owners’ beds.

How did dogs achieve such an intimate position in our lives? One theory is that, in the thousands of years that dogs have lived with humans, they have become attuned to human ways of thinking. Certainly dogs have a remarkable sensitivity to human behavior.

Dogs are able to follow human pointing gestures to find hidden food, and they can indicate successfully to their owners by their own pointing actions where a hidden toy is located. Under certain circumstances, dogs understand that a human who cannot see them (because, for example, she is blindfolded) is less likely to respond to begging with a tasty treat than a person whose vision is not obscured. Dogs are also more likely to obey a command to leave something desirable alone if their master stays in the room than if he steps out.

And yet attempts to view canine smarts as cut from the same cloth as human intelligence gloss over a lot of the details about how dogs and humans operate. Evolution doesn’t ever build the same form of intelligence twice – even though similar problems may lead to similar solutions.

As most owners of puppies know, it takes time and care for a dog to learn the ways of humans. We don’t literally raise our hackles when angry, or sniff each other’s backsides when making new friends. And dogs don’t gesture with their forepaws or use an elaborate grammatical language when trying to explain things.

In our own research, we have found that people remain somewhat mysterious to dogs for the first five months of life, and dogs at our local pound lag considerably behind house dogs when it comes to understanding human beings.

Recent research by Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College in New York accentuates the “talking past each other” that sometimes goes on between humans and dogs. Horowitz asked owners to forbid their dogs to take a biscuit and then briefly leave the room. When the owners returned after a few moments away, some were told that their dogs had been naughty and eaten the forbidden food. Others were told their dog had been good and left the biscuit alone. If the dog had misbehaved, the owner was given a moment to berate his pet for its misdeed. The owners were then asked whether their dog looked guilty.

The twist in this tale is that only half of the owners were correctly informed. Half of the time, Horowitz told the owner of a dog that had actually left the biscuit alone that his dog had taken the treat. And half the time the owner of a naughty dog was told that his dog had been good.

The point of this deception was that when Horowitz asked each owner whether his dog looked guilty, she could consider whether the owner’s report of “guilty looks” actually had to do with the facts of the matter – whether the dog had taken the forbidden treat – or whether it reflected nothing more than whether the owner had chastised his hound. The results showed very clearly that a dog’s “guilty looks” came about solely because it was being scolded: the look had nothing to do with whether the dog had really committed an offense.

This does not mean that we should not chastise our dogs (or praise them). Nor does it mean that we should not love our dogs – or sometimes be frustrated by them. All it means is that, if we want to live harmoniously with another species in our most intimate places, we must recognize that some of the time our preferred modes of reasoning are not theirs. We must try to understand dogs on their own terms, and help them to understand us.