Who among us has not wondered occasionally what our dog is thinking? Or feeling? I have wondered that often, sometimes with befuddlement. At times I have felt like shouting “What are you THINKING?.” For example, when the front door is open yet my girl stares deeply into my eyes while peeing on the rug. Or when she is snorting and woofing while dreaming.
But is this a two – way street? Do dogs attempt to understand us and perhaps even empathize?
Does your dog comfort you when you are upset? Does he actively respond to your crying?
A recent study gives some support to the belief that our dogs respond to crying more than humming or talking. Whether they truly understand our emotional state is up for debate, but many people would like to think so.
The study, which was published in Animal Cognition in May, devised a situation where dogs were observed in 3 different situations. In the first, the owner or stranger was humming. In the second, the owner or stranger was talking and in the third situation, the owner or stranger was crying. They observed that when the stranger cried, the dogs were frequently observed licking, sniffing and nuzzling the stranger. If the dog had been SEEKING comfort, they would have gone to their owner for comfort. Instead, the dog frequently approached the stranger. This was interpreted as a show of empathy.
Responding To Emotional State or Just Curious?
Had it been simply a matter of curiosity, then the dogs would have responded to the humming, because humming is a novelty as well. But they did not. And it did not matter whether it was the stranger or the owner who was weeping. This suggests that the dogs were responding to the person’s emotional state.
Since dogs have been domesticated for at least 12,000 years, it is not surprising that they are adept at reading human emotions and non-verbal communication.
In another experiment it was shown that when food was hidden from dogs, they were capable of understanding a pointing gesture to indicate where it was. And even more interesting, it was shown that a dog would be more likely to approach a forbidden bit of food if the eyes of the human were closed, and less likely if the human’s eyes were open. Clearly then they are capable of “reading” us.
Speaking of reading…in a recent post Anna Jane Grossman, who has written for The New York Times, Gizmodo and others, ponders the value of a column written from the dog’s point of view.
While admitting that she sometimes voices inwardly her dog’s thoughts she speculates on the value of reading “dog prose.” I generally concur with her though one exception that leaps to mind is the little known book Flush by Virgina Woolf. Now that is “dog prose” at its very best!