• Question: why do dogs understand us?

    Asked by heatherthecow to Aaron, Abbey, Keith, Natalie on 18 Nov 2015.
    • Photo: Natalie Garrett

      Natalie Garrett answered on 18 Nov 2015:

      The ‘why’ is a pretty deep question, really. We have seen that dogs instinctively seek out people in distress to offer them comfort (see this article for more information: https://www.cesarsway.com/dog-psychology/instinctual/can-dogs-feel-empathy ) even when those people are complete strangers to them. Also, studies on dogs brains have shown that they like to look at people. Owning dogs has been shown to reduce stress levels in humans, so there’s a clear benefit to us to have a dog around, possibly partly due to how friendly they are. But why should a dog feel empathy?

      Some think this is because ever since the first wolves made tentative relationships with people, dogs have developed alongside humans. We have basically selectively bred the ones that exhibited the characteristics that were most useful (e.g. loyalty, friendliness, defensiveness to protect the tribe etc.) and the dogs on the other hand, benefitted from food and shelter and protection. Over time, the dogs who were most able to empathise with people were the ones more likely to be successful in having a relationship with a human, and those dogs were more likely to survive if they were being looked after by humans than the dogs and wolves who had to fend for themselves.

    • Photo: Aaron Boardley

      Aaron Boardley answered on 18 Nov 2015:

      Part of it is learned behaviour. Dogs, like all creatures, can spot patterns. If they know that every time you say the word ‘walk’ they get to go outside, they’ll eventually make a connection if it happens often enough. Their brain spots a pattern.

      It’s not that they understand language and know how to use ‘walk’ in a sentence. It’s just that their brain has come to associate the sound of ‘walk’ and the feeling of being outside. Eventually, this connection becomes so strong that they’ll get excited by the word ‘walk’ even if you don’t mean it, or use it in a completely different way.

      They same can be true for other words (for my nanny’s dog it was ‘beach’, as that is where we always used to go). Or actions. If you keep dog food in a cupboard, they might get excited every time they see you go near that cupboard, just by the connection they learn, over time, to make in their head.

    • Photo: Keith Franklin

      Keith Franklin answered on 19 Nov 2015:

      Anything that can think for itself can learn things. In the wild, animals learn things about where best to find food, how to escape from things which are trying to eat them etc.

      Like Aaron says – they learn from experience, and because they spend so much time with us they learn well.

      As you can see from my picture, I’ve been very successful in taming a Moomin….