Dog owners who spend moments with their furry friends may have felt that their dogs understand them, feels them, and knows just when they needed a companion. Many dog lovers say, “I wish I could know what my dog thinks and understand what he barks about.” But do we really know what we think? Let’s find out.
Human brains compared with dog brains
Many dog owners are convinced that their pets understand what they say based on their actions and reactions. Since dogs can be trained to sit and stay, and they seem to recognize the sound of their name, they can surely understand us, right? Well, studies have shown that dogs pay close attention to our words, intonations and signals and they are able to process what it means.
All mammals have the same brain structures – the hemispheres, lobes and parts are the same and have similar functions. Like humans, they are able to use the left hemisphere to understand the meaning of words, and the right hemisphere to analyze intonation. They can combine these two types of information together to understand if we seem to mean what we say, and that’s how humans process language. When they hear positive words said with a positive intonation, the reward systems in their brain activate. This is why praising them with an excited tone works when you are training them to learn a new behavior and when making them do what pleases you. But when you say “good boy” in a neutral, subdued manner, they won’t recognize that they are really being praised.
However, dogs may or may not really understand English or whatever language you speak. They are primarily just responding to the sound of the words and processing our babbling, together with our signals and body languages to understand what we mean and react to us. Yes, there are reports of super smart dogs with huge vocabularies, especially from the most intelligent dog breeds. A German border collie named Rico can identify more than 200 toys by name. An American border collie named Chaser knows 1,022 nouns and the commands that go with them. But then, these are rare cases, and border collies are among the smartest and the most trainable types.
The dog’s brain processes fear, spatial awareness, response to stimuli and memories the same as humans. However, our brains have more folds, which means more surface area and greater power for processing information. Our prefrontal cortex is also more developed than the dogs’, making us more capable of higher level of processing and thoughts.
Brain power is dependent on the size, specifically, the size of the brain in proportion to the mass of the body. For humans, our brains are about one-fiftieth the average body mass. While humans have 1:50 brain to body size ratio, horses have 1:600, elephants have 1:560, and lions have 1:550. Dogs score higher with a 1:25 ratio.
In general a dog’s level of cognition is comparable to two- to three-year-old humans – even up to five-year-olds. Dogs can understand that we are showing them something when we point to an object. They respond to familiar voices and they know if you are in good terms with someone or not. They can recognize and read human faces like little kids. They understand that an object still exist even if it goes out of sight – see how they would want to fetch things even though you have tossed them somewhere far away. Human babies, on the other hand, would not look down and find food that fell down from its high chair.
Dogs can also ignore bad instructions better than young toddlers. A research from Yale experimented with dogs and three- to four-year-old children, wherein they were given a box and were taught to turn the lever to open its lid and get a treat. The lever was placed in a way that it is not needed to open the box. Dogs tended to ignore the lever and simply opened the box, while the children continued turning the lever even if nothing happens. See how smart they are?
One of the theories that explain why dogs can relate to humans on a higher level as compared to other animals and why their brains have so many similarities to ours’ is because humans and dogs evolved together. Dogs have been living and interacting with humans for thousands of years as they are among the oldest species the human race have ever domesticated. This explains why dogs can pick up hints in human body language, can read our facial expressions and can process our language better than any other animal species. Anthropological research found that humans were able to survive because of their partnership with dogs. Humans feed dogs and reward them with more food as they learn human signals, while dogs protect them from wild animals and help them hunt. Since then, humans have a mutualistic relationship with dogs.
Dogs’ Noses Know
A dogs’ sense of smell tends to be a lot stronger than ours, but we don’t really appreciate it that much. In terms of brain parts in proportion to overall brain size, the portion of a dog’s brain that analyzes smells are much larger, as compared to that of humans. Dogs can have around 300 million scent receptors as compared to 6 million in humans.
Their sense of smell is so strong that they can sniff emotions. They know if we are under stress because of a distinct odor in our perspiration they can only smell. They can also smell the adrenaline our body releases when we’re afraid – meaning they know when we experience fear.
A dog can also tell a lot about what we did and had for the day. They can smell our sweat, odor, breath, skin cells and traces of bodily fluids, and it helps them know much. They know if you’ve walked through the park, took a burrito for lunch, had sex, or jogged for a mile. If you’re a female, your dog also knows if you’re having you have your menstrual period or not. For them, our skin is like sponges that absorb scents of anything and everything we have walked by or touched. So for instance, if you went to the supermarket, sniffing your hand and skin would let them know that you checked out some bananas (though you didn’t buy them), have walked through the meat section, and have taken coins for a change. Are you still wishing your dog can talk?
Dogs can also observe abnormalities in your bodily functions through the range of smell of organic compounds in the human body. They know if you are feeling sick, or if you have a disease you are not even aware of. They can sniff rise in blood sugar to migraines and fever. Recent studies revealed that dogs can even detect cancer by being able to sniff chemicals that cancer cells emit. In those studies, the accuracy of dogs in cancer detection are on the scale of 88 to 99 percent. Sometimes, when dogs are acting strange, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with them – something is likely wrong with you.
Dogs can diagnose diseases and symptoms if they are trained. There are dogs that can signal epileptic patients that they are going to have seizures before it happens and assist them. There are those that alert diabetic patients when their insulin levels drop. Also, there are even cases when dogs can sniff out urinary tract infections in paralyzed patients who can’t communicate their symptoms. This way, dogs help save human lives.
Dog have feelings
Perhaps you have observed that your dog seems to feel sorry when they have done something mischievous, feel uneasy when you are about to leave, and feel excited to see you when you get home. You might have asked, “Does my dog really love me too? Are they capable of feeling the feelings I feel?” Now let’s talk about that.
Since dogs react positively when you are talking to them in a positive tone, they also know when you are unhappy with them by the tone of your voice. Sometimes they look sheepish, bowing with ears dropped when you yell at them, making you think that they are feeling guilty. However, it doesn’t mean they are actually sorry for what they have done. Guilt is more than an emotion; it’s a complex cognitive process dogs are not capable of having. They show signs of feeling guilty simply because they anticipate punishment and they are afraid of it. It’s also their way of expressing submission and avoiding conflict with you. There are times when dogs get aggressive, and this is because they are acting out of fear and need to defend themselves.
Dogs also sense if you are about to leave them alone again. They observe all clues – when you are spreading clothes in your bed, preparing your bag or suitcase, or putting stuff in your car – and they react by walking back and forth or staying at the front door. It means they are having anxiety spikes because they don’t understand why you need to separate from them. And when you get home seeing your stuff ruined and cluttered, you may think this is their way of revenge because you left them alone. The truth is, they were simply bored because you were not there.
You may also have also observed that your dogs can be jealous, too. While it can’t be confirmed if they really do, their actions displaying jealous behaviors might imply that feeling. A study has shown that dogs display actions of jealousy whenever their owners show affection for a stuffed toy dog. Interestingly, when their owners give more attention to other things, such as a book or a jack-o-lantern, the dogs showed lesser jealous behaviors. This means dogs tend to feel some competition regarding their owner’s attention to those they perceive that are like them. Dog owners with more than one dog have most likely witnessed these behaviors firsthand.
All these might draw you to the conclusion that your dog loves you too. But some skeptics think that it can only be because they feed them and take care of them.
Does your dog genuinely care about you? Yes. They observe the little things that affect you and your well-being. On the most basic terms, you know that dogs are able to protect your home and property by scaring away people they don’t know, right? Besides that, studies have revealed that dogs observe their owners’ interactions with other people and side with them. If their owners are being snubbed by someone, dogs tend to act coldly with that person, too. They can sense if you have negative feelings towards certain people, so they make a mental note not to be friendly with those people.
Dogs sense your emotions by the scent of the pheromones your body emits, and the change in your breathing patterns, facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation. They tend to be more playful when you are in a good mood and tend to offer comfort when you are feeling blue. If their owners are fighting, they can’t bear with it, and sometimes they get sick to their stomachs because of it. Empathy is a human capacity, but dogs amazingly have them.
Now, the other question is: Does your dog really love you or are they nice just because they are being fed and taken care of? Dogs give tend to show feelings of love when they cuddle next to you, lick you and sniff you, and make you feel like the most special person on earth by greeting you happily whenever you get home. Honestly, part of dog’s affection for their owners are caused by the benefits and rewards they get, but aren’t humans somehow the same? People tend to love back because they are shown expressions of love, and most dogs do the same. Although in some cases, dogs’ affectionate feelings are beyond that. There are dogs that simply like to be around their owner. Some tend to crave the attention and contact more than the food. Dogs stay loyal and wait for you every time.That’s love, isn’t it?
Science supports the theory that dogs feel love and affection towards their humans. A study that used fMRI technology found that the dogs’ caudate nucleus, the part of the brain associated with passionate and romantic love in humans, is activated when a familiar scent of their owners are presented to them. Research also found that there are breeds more likely to develop that strong bond with their owners compared with others. It seems like dogs are really programmed to feel love as well.
Just like humans, dogs could not possibly know what others are thinking. Just like us, they rely on facial expressions, words, emotions and intonation, body language – plus their uniquely superb sense of smell. Of all animals, dogs are the ones who can have the closest connection and truest bond to us humans, and that’s why they are man’s best friend after all.