Have you ever felt that dogs can read people’s minds? Does your dog get clingy when you’re depressed or feeling sick? When you and your partner argue, does your dog go and hide?
Our dogs aren’t clairvoyant, but they do have an uncanny ability to sense our emotions. How do they do it?
The truth about dogs
Dogs and humans have very similar social systems. We both live in tight-knit families (or packs) who protect each other and are very loyal. We both have a complex language of facial expressions, body posture, and vocalizations that promote bonding. At some point in history, early dogs learned to decode human nonverbal language. The better they anticipated our thoughts and feelings, the more they were rewarded with food, shelter and affection.
We’re often amazed and even mystified that our dogs are so astute. But why shouldn’t they be? As Brian Kilcommons, the renowned dog trainer and author, points out: What else do they have to do but watch us all day, studying our every move? “Is she happy?” your dog might wonder. “Is she mad? Should I run for cover?” With their fates so tied to our every whim, our dogs are wise to monitor our moods. A good mood might mean an extra snuggle or a game of fetch. A bad mood might mean scary loud noises and a day spent hiding under the bed. It makes sense that dogs would watch us so closely, as our changing moods give essential clues as to what is about to happen next.
And dogs are great watchers. Better than humans, some might say. According to Patricia McConnell, an author and animal behaviorist: “Your dog is probably a far better observer than you are. We humans pay so much attention to language that it often interferes with our ability to see what’s happening around us.”
But in some ways we rely too heavily on what we can see. Our visual system is so highly evolved that it tends to override the more primitive senses of smell, touch and hearing—those which are highly developed in dogs. We’re often not aware of what we’re missing.
And finally, we can’t see ourselves. Your friends, family and dogs know your habitual movements, expressions, and utterances, says McConnell, but you may not. Make a video of yourself interacting with your dog, and you’ll be amazed at what you notice.
Our dogs can read us like a book. It’s commonly said that around 90% of human communication is nonverbal (and only 10% is verbal). Your posture, head carriage, gait, and of course facial expressions speak volumes about your mood and motivation. Act happy and your dog will wag excitedly and present her favorite toy for you to toss. Hang your head in sorrow and she’ll slink over and affectionately press her head in your lap.
Dogs are especially adept at reading facial expressions. Try this mirroring experiment: Sit facing your dog and make and exaggerated happy face. Your dog will light up as well: big grin, relaxed ears, open facial expression. Now, furrow your brow and look stern. Your dog will recoil, avert her eyes, and look guilty as charged.
A dog’s understanding of body language probably explains their uncanny ability to find the one person in the room who doesn’t like dogs. A fearful person tends to tense up and stare. Dogs tend to misread a fearful person’s behavior as a “challenge” posture, like that of a dominant dog squaring up to an opponent. This immediately puts a dog on the defensive.