Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Holy Shit, Dogs!

I grew up in a household that had, at one point, 4 cats. We had a dog once, but she had major health problems that resulted in big bald patches, not much energy, and a short life. For those reasons, I've always thought of a cat as a much more suitable companion than a dog. It turns out my domestic animal worldview was lacking an important piece of information, which is that holy shit, dogs are awesome.
Awesome Dog
Exhibit A

It's not that dogs are smarter or nicer. It's that dogs and humans go way back. So far back, in fact, that we've adapted to communicate with each other. A study of animal interactions with humans (specifically dogs and chimps) showed how water, as it turns out, is sometimes thicker than blood. Keep in mind, chimpanzees are widely regarded as one of the most intelligent species on the planet. Genetically, they are nearly human themselves.

Here's how the study went down: researches would show the animal a treat, then hide it under one of several upturned cups. They would then point to where the treat was. Chimps, for all their intelligence and genetic similarity to us, just don't understand what the hell we're doing when we're putting our fingers out there like that. "Maybe he touched some poo and would like me to smell it," they wonder, sniffing cautiously at the outstretched digit.

Chimp Finger
Big deal, mine always smells like that.
Dogs, despite being decidedly non-primate, know exactly what we mean when we point somewhere. They follow the cues and get their treat right away. And pointing isn't the only thing they understand. They innately understand human behavior in the same way we do.

When you first meet someone, your eyes usually drift slightly to the left. It's a subconscious behavior, and it helps you to read emotions - that half of your face is more emotive. The only time we ever do that is when we're looking at another person's face, and no other animal does the same with each other. Guess what happens when researches flash images of human faces to dogs? Even though they don't have the same emotive asymmetry, dogs viewing human faces will almost always tilt their eyes to the left.

It doesn't seem like much, but think of the implications. It happens too often to be a coincidence, and no other animal does it. The unavoidable conclusion is that dogs can almost definitely read and understand human emotions. They can tell at a glance how we're feeling and adjust their behavior as a result. Crazy, right? It gets better.

That understanding goes both ways. Humans, especially dog owners, can actually, certifiably, understand what dogs are saying. To prove this, researches recorded dogs in various situations - being taunted with a toy, barking at a squirrel, needing to go outside, being reunited with a loved one after a long absence - and played their vocalizations for people who were familiar with dogs. The people listening were able to describe almost exactly what was happening to the dogs.

After learning all of this, I had to rethink the camp I had chosen. Don't get me wrong, cats are terrific. They're playful, sometimes cuddly, and always good for popularity on the Internet. But dogs are integrally linked to the development of humanity. They aren't our closest genetic relatives by far, but no other species is so closely connected to our own experience. More than anything else on Earth, dogs understand us.

Holy shit.

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