What Do Dogs Know About You?

The dog has something to say about everything you do! A surprising and often surprising and sometimes not so surprising result: it knows the name of your cat, your child’s birth month, your favourite movie, the worst thing you have ever done, that you love the song “What a Wonderful World,” etc.

There are a great many things we cannot know about animals that we can know about us. So, what are we supposed to do? We take the dog’s opinion at face value (right or wrong? ) and then you wonder why we can never seem to come to our own conclusions? Is the dog always right? Is he always wrong? Is it even his opinion? How do we learn what makes sense? What makes sense for a dog is a little different than what makes sense for a human being. Let’s think of it as dogs being intelligent. Let us consider that a dog is not as sentient and as independent as a human being. You can train a dog to do things for you but, let’s face it, that dog has no will and no will of his own. But if we say he’s intelligent, then that’s what makes sense. So, what does dog intelligence look like? Can we tell if a dog is being intelligent? If we are willing to go through the trouble, there are many reasons that we can come up with.

A dog who walks up to you and barks at the top of his lungs may be trying to tell you something like “hey boss, stop stealing my food!” What does this tell you? That he is trying to keep himself occupied to prevent you from starving. But how does this mean that you don’t have to steal food? What does this even mean? Well, there are a few other things we can learn. A dog may be telling you that he notices any kind of change in your behaviour and decides he wants you to go to work to help him out. This might mean he’s worried you might start sleeping with his food or not clean up after yourself. So, you can see that some things seem to tell at least some part of what a dog thinks. There is no guarantee that the thing a dog says is actually a sign of anything, but these signs can be useful if we are willing to look for them. But don’t just take my word for it – take that dog back and have it come talk to you. A few years ago we set up a project, based out of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, to train dogs to read some text. Our dogs were given a task in which they had to sit at a table, read a text, and then return to their home or place of work. What the training showed is that dogs were not particularly good at reading complex or ambiguous words like “yes” and “no.” But, in the words of one of our students, “they can read pretty anything. I mean, I could go out to the supermarket and put my hand in something, hand it to a dog and she just has no idea”. So, let’s assume that something like this is true for us. How do we know that the dog is right about our own behaviour? Dogs are able, to a limited extent, to tell us that our behaviour is in line with their values, with their beliefs. Dogs can recognise ourselves through the body language of the people around us. They see in people other forms of behaviour that look more like us but are not exactly us. When dogs see us doing things that seem “like” us, they can assume this is our human nature and can make assumptions about our behaviour. For example, dogs often assume that the dog who has a collar and leash is just as likely to be trustworthy and as honest as the person who is wearing jeans and a hoodie. For the person who wears jeans and a hoodie to be trustworthy and honest – this would certainly raise issues, but the dog could make a similar assumption. Dogs will generally make many assumptions about humans based on facial features, or other signs. Dogs are also aware that humans use language, that words mean quite different things to different people. As with dogs, this means that dogs can make assumptions about what people think. When dogs hear dogs doing things that seem more like us, they don’t take humans for granted. It means that dogs are capable of knowing that there is a lot of information about us lurking about.