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Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind

For example, researchers have found that the right side of the human face better expresses our emotional state, and when looking at other humans, we display what’s called a left-gaze bias, or a propensity to look toward the right side of the other person’s face, where all the clues are. When dogs look at human faces, they also display a left-gaze bias. Could your dog be sensitive to your emotional state? Yup.

And just as social contexts and relationships matter to you, they matter to your dog. Research has shown that if a stranger approaches your dog in a threatening manner, your dog will respond with avoidance/aggressive behavior. But if you approach your dog in the same way, your dog responds with tolerance and contact-seeking behavior. In short, dog owners feel connected to and supported by the dogs they live with, and for good reason.

But sometimes, dogs don’t act the way we want them to.
When dogs are out of sync with us, we wonder why. “We bring dogs into our households and expect them to understand and behave like us primates … well, primate plus plush toy,” laughs Pattison.

This is where cognition research comes in. Is the dog’s assessment of a situation comparable to the human’s, and if not, what is the dog’s vantage point?

Numerous studies have found that dogs attend to human communicative intent. As your significant other may have told you (possibly more than once), how you say it matters. Want a dog to come to you from across the room? Research by Patricia B. McConnell, and beloved Bark columnist, explored how different sounds affect dog behavior: “Four short notes were more effective at eliciting a come response and increasing motor activity levels than one longer continuous note.” In the real world, yelling “COOOME!” (akin to one longer continuous note) will most likely result in exasperation, but short, rapidly repeating notes, like “Pup-pup-pup,” will likely bring a dog on over.

Are dogs cooperative or competitive? Are dogs like chimpanzees, who more readily locate food in competitive situations when prohibited from going to a certain location. (A possible chimp translation might be: “The only reason you’re telling me not to go there is because that’s where the good stuff is, you jerk.”) Nope, dogs fare better in cooperative situations, finding food when informed of its location in a friendly, cooperative tone. Bringing this back to daily life: if you wonder whether the dog-human relationship is based on competition or cooperation, this is another check mark on the cooperative ballot.

Understanding the dog’s perspective is important because incorrect assessments of behavior can cause problems in dog-human relationships. “People think the dog is doing something to create trouble,” explains Floridabased Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist. “Almost everything on TV is about conf lict — a fight, someone trying to win or cheat; it’s very confrontational and we are always looking for a fight for superiority. Fortunately, animals don’t always work that way.”

And why can’t dogs just do what we want them to do? In one study, dogs who performed a 10-minute sit-stay (meaning, they exerted self-control) gave up quicker on a subsequent task than dogs not required to exert that initial self-control. This initial act of controlling their behavior depleted their energy, thereby adversely affecting subsequent behavior.

The consequences for not understanding dogs’ behavioral capacities can be dire. “The biggest cause of death in dogs is behavior problems, and failure to inhibit is at the root of many behavior problems,” explains Pattison.

“He barks all the time — failure to inhibit barking; he growled — failure to inhibit an aggressive response. He jumps up — failure to inhibit jumping. We expect dogs to forgo their species-typical behavior patterns and inhibit them in favor of a response we find more appropriate.” The applications for dog cognition research are vast. “The cognitive research says, look, the dog is not doing this to get your goat, he’s not doing this to diss you, he’s not trying to dominate you and take over the world,” says Dunbar. In other words, he’s just being a dog. Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, finds that the “final showdown” misconception often results in inappropriate owner-dog interactions and worsening of the dog’s behavior.

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