My love of animals goes as far back as I can remember, probably about the time I threw out all my Barbies and played tea parties with my stuffed animal collection. Dogs have always held the most of my affection though, not surprising considering they have lived by our side for thousands of years and, during that time, we have shaped each other’s history and behaviours; no other animal has such a close relationship with us.
The understanding of a beings inner thoughts is always going to be mainly theory. Who knows what is going on inside anyone’s head? During my time at university I stumbled across an article that changed the way I thought about dogs. I can’t remember verbatim, but the gist of it was - when humans point, dogs look to the direction we’re pointing, not at our hands. This may not seem like a particular talent to us clever humans, but only a few species hold this special skill. In fact, a study comparing chimpanzees and dogs suggested that, although chimpanzees could also follow directional gestures, dogs understood pointing as a communication cue better. Which is crazy! Chimps have hands and fingers, dogs have paws and yet dogs understand the concept of pointing better!
We all love dogs (if you don’t, you should do!) scientists are no different. Dogs love us back, and their eagerness to please has made them perfect lab partners (no pun intended). Chaser the collie is famous for knowing and remembering the 1022 unique names of all her toys. She can even guess the name of toys she has never seen before by a process of elimination from the names she already knows. Chaser does have a psychology professor for an owner and has trained intensively to gain this knowledge, but your typical trained family pet can have a vocab of up to 165 words. The top 20% smartest dogs can get up to around 250 words, which is the same vocabulary size as a 2 ½ year old child.
Most species of animal are pretty hard to persuade to keep still, dogs of course are an exception.
Brain scans have allowed scientists to get that one step closer to knowing what is going on inside those fluffy noggins.
In particular, one study has shown that dogs do not just listen to tone of voice, rather they pay attention to the words that go along with it. Not to say that a dog won’t wag his tail if you spout utter nonsense in a friendly voice! However, dogs give the best reaction when they understand the words
and the positive tone of voice. This is not a physical reaction, but the chemical reaction in the reward centre of the brain, showing how much they enjoy knowing they’ve been praised! This skill takes both sides of the brain working together to achieve, which is actually similar to the way that humans process language.
Go back 100 years or so, scientists thought that animals were comparable to machines with simple behavioural outputs from simple stimulus inputs. All you have to do is look a little closer to realise it is a little more complicated than that.
Dogs can understand a great deal and language is a fantastic training tool; we can use it to make our dogs everyday lives a bit easier. It can help them understand and make the right choices.
Remember how dogs have the vocabulary of a 2 year old? They also have similar impulse control! Most of our PAWS pack members will do anything for a treat; Aoife the Spaniel eagerly climbs everything she finds for bonus agility treats whilst Willow, the energetic crazy Cockerpoo, will snap to an attentive stand-still.
Skye the Collie is another intelligent PAWS pack member who has deduced that dogs will get a treat for sitting still for a photo. She sees the camera and has linked it to treats; it doesn’t matter who is being photographed, once the camera is out treats are going to happen!
To help Skye, and the other members of the PAWS pack understand sharing we have started using names when handing out treats. Now instead making an opportunistic dash for any treats she will happily sit and wait for her name to be called, understanding that other pack member’s treats are their own.
It’s a small thing, but simple use of language has prevented disruptive behaviour, encouraged good behaviour and eased treat- related tension in the group. This means a happier and relaxed group who can just focus on enjoying their adventures.
So what’s the lesson for today? Talk to your dogs, they’re listening! Use simple, clear instructions and tone of voice to match; imagine talking to a toddler. Dogs are so human focused, their survival as a species has depended on their ability to understand us. Isn’t it only fair we take the time to try and understand them back.