Over the past few weeks a flurry of news articles about dogs’ abilities to learn and understand human language have appeared. My readers probably know all about this because I’ve become a bit obsessed with the issue. From articles that talk about dogs not being as “genius” as we believe (humph!) to dogs being super geniuses (like Chaser of whom I’ve written about several times), science seems eager to figure out what dogs know, and how much of it they know about.
And in the midst of it all comes this latest study that basically tells us that dogs known when someone is being rude. The technical explanation is that observation of third-party interactions can affect how a dog behaves towards someone perceived as unhelpful. I know…can they make that any drier? However, what they found was pretty amazing. Let me explain:
Studies were being done to assess the developmental psychologies of human children, particularly “evaluations of individuals based on third-party interactions”. Essentially, how do infants react if someone displays harmful intentions towards other people or to those who are behaving in a way that is unfair?
It makes sense because it lets experts know how well developed a human child’s perception might be at any given point in time, and it opens up the door for all kinds of fascinating discussions and psychological treatments. However, as part of the study, the same groups also looked at the ways that dogs reacted to people doing the same things that the kids witnessed.
Guess what? Dogs know when someone is a jerk.
And even more interestingly, the study opens the issue of a “sense of morality” in dogs, which is something I’ve always given them credit for having. And before you argue that we should only study “apples to apples” and not “apples to oranges”, remember that lots of recent research has shown us that “Dogs are as intelligent as the average two-year-old child” and in many instances, even more so.
With their abilities to understand at least 250 words, count to five and even do some math, toddlers are pretty advanced, and yet a lot of dogs are proving themselves far more intelligent than we had ever imagined. And while some breeds are real Einsteins of the dog world, others are a bit less so. But, just consider that it means that your average pup can have the same observational, assessment and even moral skills as toddlers.
One researcher said something I found pretty revealing: “Obviously we are not going to be able to sit down and have a conversation with a dog, but like a two-year-old, they show that they can understand words and gestures.” And that is where this new study comes into the picture.
Mind Your Manners
The way the research operated is very simple. Dog owners were put in front of test subjects (dogs, as well as separate groups of capuchin monkeys). The point was to allow the animals to witness and then respond to the acts of rudeness. And what do I mean by rudeness? According to the studies, the dogs were asked to watch their owners visibly struggle to open a container that held a dog toy inside of it. They would then hand it to another person who tried and helped them to open the container. On the opposite side of the owner was a passive bystander not asked to help. When the little display was done, both people would then offer treats to the dog.
In a second scenario witnessed by the same dog, the owner would struggle to open a container, and ask someone else to try. However, this time around, that other person would refuse to try, and the container would remain closed. The third person, who remained passive at this attempt was also present. And with the failed attempt, the owner would put the container down. At that point, both bystanders would offer treats.
Can you guess the outcome? The person who attempted to help and who then offered a treat would be acceptable to the dog. However, when they refused to help, their offer of a treat was typically rejected by the dog, and they instead accepted a treat from the passive bystander.
In science-speak, it meant that “Dogs negatively evaluate people who refuse to help their owners” and it also means that non-humans can do third-party based social evaluation. If you are interested in watching the video of an exchange, there is a short clip on YouTube, and it will probably shock you! It offers irrefutable evidence of an emotional response to a negatively perceived behavior. And though it links far back to the formation of early animal society and cooperation, you cannot look at it entirely clinically.
After all, it means that the dogs actively ignored treats because of a perceived wrong.
Good Judge of Character
I’ve always said that you should trust a dog’s judgement. At least, that’s what I tell all of my friends who say that their dog just doesn’t seem to like someone. Whether it is a new boyfriend or girlfriend, the neighbor, or someone else, if a dog seems wary of that person or even dislikes them, don’t ignore it and never punish a dog for such reactions. This sort of research shows that you can reasonably take your dog’s judgement of others into account when forming your own opinions.
It also upholds many of the points I made in my article about things that dogs would rather you didn’t do. In particular is that point I made about them being forced to befriend animals or people that they just don’t seem to like. I won’t reiterate my tale of childhood woe I used in the article, but I will reiterate the main thrust of the story – if a dog does not seem to like someone do not force the social interaction. Research like this proves that they probably have observed something you might have missed with your human mind and the results of forced interactions will rarely be positive.
And try to remember that the scientists running the studies indicated that our own sense of morality might have its origins in these traits in dogs and monkeys. You know how we feel kindly towards the one person who stops to let us enter traffic with our car? Or how we are grateful for someone holding open the door even if we didn’t need it? It could be that we think of these helpful people in a favorable way thanks to the same instincts that make dogs take treats only from those who are helpful to their pack mates!
All of this should also remind all of us that dogs are amazing at observing and reading us, and that we should sit up and pay a bit of attention to this particular trait.
The study above used mostly body language. There were no verbal cues and the only non-body language moment in the video is when one of the owners holds up a toy so the dog can see what was inside of the container that one of the actors helped to open. Watching the dog, it does not seem as if they do pay a lot of attention to the actors, and simply focus on the owner, yet their reactions make it clear that they took a lot in from the brief interactions.
This makes it a good time to do a refresher on your body language and what it might be saying to a dog. A while back I wrote a piece about the ways that dogs interpret our body language, and it is pretty important that you never forget how much you communicate to your puppos without uttering or word or consciously sending a message.
As I said back then, we make a lot of mistakes in the ways we use our bodies when we interact with dogs. Sometimes there are nasty consequences, such as an unexpected bite or snarl. As an example, kids without much experience with dogs may rush to touch them, crowding in on them and getting a nip or bite because the dog misreads the child’s intentions.
However, now that these studies show that dogs can read incredibly subtle cues, it means we should be more careful than ever when we are around them, ensuring we don’t send mixed or negative messages. To be sure that occurs, let’s start from the head and work our way downward.
Really, dogs are going to focus mostly on your eyes, and as I try to constantly reiterate to people, dogs are not all about direct eye contact. It is a very human thing to feel you cannot trust someone whose gaze rarely meets yours, but with dogs it is entirely different. Hold their gaze directly for too long, and it can be misinterpreted as aggression. Yes, Leroy stares lovingly into my face if I’m about to take a bite of something, or when I’m putting on my shoes to head outdoors, but even then, it’s seconds.
When you are meeting a dog for the first time, you just shouldn’t stare into their eyes. They won’t appreciate it. While I always advocate for training your dog to “accept” eye contact, you will find that the most intelligent dogs follow the old shepherd’s notion of “eyes on the herd, ears on the master”.
So, don’t force your dog to look into your eyes when speaking as it is not a natural form of expression or communication.
We might jokingly say things like “talk to the hand,” and most of us shake hands, but with dogs, you don’t really want to get “handsy”. A dog who knows and loves you will have zero problem with you reaching out to them as you greet them, but an unfamiliar dog needs to get a good whiff of your hand (palm down) and will either move in for a pat or two or back away. If you pursue with your hand, don’t be surprised at rejection (i.e. a nip or even a dog who darts away).
Dogs are big on personal space – whether you are a familiar or stranger – and if you violate this, it is a form of dominance or attempted dominance. This is why I train kids (rather than dogs) to be far more controlled when around animals. Squealing, flailing the arms and legs and being tense are all forms of body language that dogs dislike and misread.
So, whether you are a kid or an adult, don’t tell a strange dog that you are rude by reaching out and touching, flailing around, or invading space with the hands. Give them time to approach you, and even when you know a dog, use the palm down – hand sniff gesture to convey respect and safety.
Direct…that’s a word most humans like. Direct eye contact, direct to the point, direct gestures…dogs and cats on the other hand are not big fans of directness. This is true of the way you hold your body, too, and very few dogs want to be “face to face” or directly in line with your body. If you are meeting a new dog or approaching a dog that seems nervous, you always want your body a bit angled or sideways and it is always best to be at their level (i.e. squatting). You don’t want your face within easy reach, and you don’t want to be threatening. So the sideways squat, and at a bit of a distance, seems to be the magic combination.
While the physical stuff is mostly intuitive and learned by experience, dogs can read your demeanor like a book. If you are nervous, no matter what you do, they’ll know. If you are tense…well, the same. The reality is that dogs can gauge all kinds of subtle cues and many we didn’t realize they were able to understand (i.e. rudeness). If you want an accurate “read” from your dog (or any dog), be genuine. You’ll have to be respectful and yet also confident, calm and yet just eager enough. It sounds difficult, but if you love dogs and mean them no harm, most can eventually figure it out by watching you.