Have you “decoded” your dog?
I thought I knew as much as I needed to know about my own dog. Then I saw, just recently, the 2010 NOVA program “Dogs Decoded.” It presents the fascinating science behind the bond that has evolved over thousands of years between humans and dogs. It explains many things that dog owners understand intuitively, but may wonder about.
For example, we all know that dogs “feel” like children to us. They rely on us for everything, and we care for them (and dote on them) much as we do our youngsters.
As the program makes clear, we’re not imagining those parental feelings. Studies show that humans respond to their dogs by secreting the same hormone — oxytocin — that enables human mothers to bond with their babies.
No wonder we get that tingly feeling when we pick up our small dogs and cuddle them against our neck. It’s that squirt of ocytocin. Amazing.
Another interesting part of the program describes the differences between dogs and wolves. Dogs are a subspecies of wolves, and can even interbreed with their wild brethren to produce fertile offspring. But, as those who’ve ever tried to raise wolf pups know, even with gentle handling from birth, wolves cannot be “turned into” dogs. As adults, wolves lack the cooperative spirit dogs have, and display much greater independence.
The program shows a hand-raised wolf jumping up onto a dining-room table in a way that a similarly raised dog never would.
Wolves simply don’t understand us or want to get along with us the way dogs do.
Indeed, dogs have innate traits that enable them to comprehend us brilliantly. They can, for example, “follow a point,” something wolves cannot do. Humans, uniquely among animals, can show each other where to look by pointing a finger. Not even chimpanzees can follow a point the way we do. But dogs can!
I experimented with my own dog, Sadie, a Chihuahua/Pomeranian mix. I decided to make it a true test of the pointing finger alone, so I didn’t say “Look!” or turn my head in the direction I was pointing.
Sure enough, her body language immediately replied, “What?!” as she trotted straight in the direction I was pointing. I’d never consciously taught her this skill, and in fact researchers say this is just one of many abilities dogs have evolved in order to decode our nonverbal language as well as they do.
As for verbal language, most amazing to me is our own ability to decode what dogs are “saying.” Dog owners will tell you they understand “dogspeak,” but the program demonstrates the astonishing degree of nuance with which dogs can talk to us.
Test subjects were given recordings of dogs barking — not even their own dogs, mind you — and were remarkably accurate in their interpretations. The barking of a dog tied to a tree with its owner walking away, for example, was described variously as “asking for attention,” “distressed,” and “wanting off a chain.”
The sound of a dog being tempted with a desired toy was described as “playful,” “asking its owner for something,” and “wanting a ball.”
A dog barking at an unknown person behind a fence was identified as “angry,” “barking at a stranger encroaching,” and “seeing someone behind a fence.”
Pretty remarkable. My own little dog is on the vocal side anyway (I’m still working to encourage her to do less vocalizing), and I could think of four barks I can translate flawlessly.
They are, “Deer!”; “Plastic ball!”; “Away from my food!” (spoken exclusively to the cats); and “You are so dead!” (spoken to my husband’s hand as he roughhouses with her).
After watching “Dogs Decoded,” however, I wondered if she had other expressions I’d perhaps overlooked. My consciousness thus raised, a few days later I noticed a distinctly unfamiliar bark. I called Sadie to me and, teasingly, said, “Show me.” (This is what I say whenever she clearly wants something but I don’t know what it is. She then takes me to the thing and looks right at it.)
In this case, though, she wasn’t asking for anything. She was telling me something. And when I said “Show me,” she took me straight to what she was talking about…a dead field mouse on the rug.
Clearly, that unfamiliar bark translates to “Here’s something you won’t like,” or perhaps, “Those darned cats have been at it again.”
In any event, I was bowled over. I told her repeatedly what a clever dog she was. I felt clever, too, to have decoded her bark enough to know it meant something new and different.
To try it yourself, watch “Dogs Decoded” (available online with a quick search), and you’ll be seeing and hearing your own dog in a brand new way.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.