Amazing Science! The Dog Edition

Someone once said that your dog knows all of your secrets. They can sniff out when you're not feeling well. They can tell when you're happy, sad, or afraid. And, as we all know, there isn't a dog alive who can't hear a cheese wrapper half a mile away.

But if you think we know everything there is to know about dogs, you've got another one coming. Every day science turns up new and interesting facts about our canine companions.

And we've got the latest.

Are you ready?

Our Dogs Can Read Our Faces

Dogs are masters at nonverbal communication. When “speaking” to one another, they have a complex system of postures, vocalizations, and body language that communicates a huge range of subtle emotions and intentions.

People are only starting to crack this canine code. But when it comes to understanding us, dogs are miles ahead in the game.

Some scientists believe that dogs purposely use their puppy dog eyes to get us to do their bidding. They widen their eyes and use the muscles in their “eyebrow” area to get our attention, and to make themselves more sympathetic to us.

This is just one of the many ways dogs express their intentions to us (tail talk is another). But can they really read our body language?

According to science, the answer is yes. Not only that, but they can do it with unsettling accuracy. How? They look for clues in our voices, body odor, posture, and even in our facial expressions.

Just the facts, Jack

In recent study, scientists showed a series of photographs of human faces to their test dogs. The photos showed two human faces, each displaying the six basic human emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust and “no emotion.”

The dogs responded strongly to the photos of strong emotion. Their heart rates increased, and they delayed eating after seeing these photos.

Another interesting result involved directionality. When a dog wags its tail to the right, that means it's looking at something that makes it happy. When a dog wags to the left, that means it's looking at something it would rather avoid.

When the dogs in the study were shown photos of strong emotions like anger and fear, they turned their heads to the left. When they were shown photos of more relaxed expressions, they turned their heads to the right.

So, if you think your dog understands your feelings, science agrees!

They Can Tell Time

What? It's true! But don't go buying your dog a watch any time soon.

Do you ever wonder how it is your dog knows precisely when it's dinner time? And when you're not getting on with it fast enough?

You might think that they've come to associate certain human behaviors with the approach of mealtime. For example, my dog knows that when I come home from work and hang up my coat, his kibble is on the way.

That's part of the story. But why is it that he wakes me up with a cold snout at the same time every single morning? He does this whether it's light or dark outside, no matter who else might be awake, and even on the weekend, when no one is using an alarm clock.

Science has the answer.

Timing cells

A new study from Northwestern University shows that many animals — not just dogs — have cells in their brains that encode both spatial and temporal aspects of memories.

What on Earth does that mean?

In the study, scientists had mice run along a virtual reality track to a virtual door. Once they reached the door, they had to wait precisely six seconds before the door would open, and the mice would receive a treat.

Scientists found that one set of neurons in the mice's brains would fire while they were running down the “track.” Once they got to the “door,” those neurons stopped firing, and a different set fired for those six seconds.

The scientists concluded that while the first set of neurons was firing, the mouse was thinking about where it was going. When the second set of neurons fired, the mouse's brain was marking time.

From this, they postulated that animals do, indeed, process time. And that Fido really does know when you're being slow with the kibble.

They Can Process Human Language

Does your dog know what you're saying? You know they do. In fact, the average dog has a vocabulary of 160 words — and they can learn just as many hand signs, as well. That might not seem like a lot, but how many words do you know in dog language?

Now scientists have shown that dogs can process human language in a very interesting way.

A recent study at Emory University used brain imaging to take a look at how dogs process human words. In this study, dogs were trained to retrieve two very different toys that they had never seen before. Each toy had a name, which, also was new to the dog.

After the training was complete, the dogs' owners tested the dogs' ability to fetch the correct toy by name. Scientists scanned the dogs' brains when they were given the familiar name, as well as when they were told to fetch an object given a nonsense word as a name.

Brain imaging showed that dogs' brains reacted more strongly to the nonsense word.

What does that mean?

First, it means that dogs can differentiate between words they know and unfamiliar words.

But why would they react more strongly to a word that they hadn't learned? This is exactly the opposite way a human brain would react in this situation.

The scientists believed that the extra brain activity came down to the dogs trying to figure out not only what their owners meant by the nonsense word, but also trying to please their owners despite not knowing the word.

And that brings us to science's next discovery.

Dogs Know When They Don't Know Something

Some people will claim that dogs are driven only by association and instinct, and that they have no signs of “higher intelligence” like people do.

But science has a bone to pick with that.

A 2018 study by the Max Planck Institute addresses the idea of metacognition in dogs.

What's that?

Simply put, metacognition means thinking about thinking. And that's some next-level thought. Literally.

In this study, the scientists placed a reward — either food or a toy — behind two V-shaped fences, while the test dogs watched. In some cases the dogs were allowed to see where the scientists placed the reward. In other cases, they were not.

The scientists found that when the dogs didn't see where the treat was placed, they looked for additional clues to help them figure it out.

In the scientists' opinions, this suggested that dogs, like humans have metacognitive abilities. That is, they are capable of thinking about thinking.

In short, they know when they don't know something, and will use additional clues when they need to, to fill in the gaps.

And that's pretty smart.

Science Confirms It: Dogs are Humanity's Best Friends

Is there no end to the amazing traits and abilities science will turn up regarding our canine companions?

It certainly doesn't look that way.

What's the most amazing thing you've learned about your dog? We'd love to hear about it!

Featured Image: CC BY 2.0 by Dippy Daloo via Flickr