We’d love to believe we know everything about man’s best friend. After all, we spend plenty of time with our canine pals; according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, about 43 million American households have dogs, and the average home has 1.6. While we’ve never seen six-tenths of a dog, the statistics are clear: We love our pets.
But while the human-canine bond is incredibly powerful, we’re often mystified by our companions’ behaviors. What’s worse, we often think we know what our dogs are thinking when we’re really just guessing.
When the dog looks at you, the dog is not thinking what kind of a person you are. The dog is not judging you
— mighty Devil 🌚 (@DrRanaFaisal) July 14, 2018
Fortunately, scientists are there with lab coats and chew toys to get to the essence of canine psychology. We looked into the science of dog behaviors and found some surprising misconceptions.
1. “Old dogs don’t need to learn tricks, and tricks aren’t especially useful, anyway.”
You’ve taught your canine companion to sit, shake, and lie down. What’s next? Hopefully, something.
“I do think if you do good dog training with your dog regularly, I think the dividends can be seen exponentially in time,” Annie Grossman, co-owner and senior dog trainer at School for the Dogs in New York, tells Urbo. “My dog is 13, and I can go weeks at a time without [doing] any specific training with him, but because we have done a lot of training, I think I’ve helped him be a better problem solver.”
Grossman says teaching tricks builds your ability to communicate with your animal.
“I like teaching tricks because I think it’s a fun way to build your dog’s ability to learn whatever it is you want them to learn and to practice your ability to teach. If you’re able to teach your dog something new, even if it’s silly, you’re building your ability to teach them the important stuff when it matters. Like, ‘Hey, don’t run in front of that motorcycle.'”
Ideally, you’ll get started early, but old dogs can learn new tricks, per a 2016 study from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. Researchers found that puppies learn faster than older dogs, but all dogs are capable of learning regardless of age. Scientists developed special computer games (with touchscreen controls, since dogs aren’t too great with a mouse—that’s more of a cat thing) and trained senior dogs to use them.
Another reason to keep teaching Fido: It makes him happy. Further research in 2018 showed that regular brain training created “positive emotions” in older dogs.
“The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling that older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy,” said Ludwig Huber, PhD, the senior author of the research, in a written statement.
“Regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement and thus maximizing learning opportunities.”
2. “Dogs live by smell alone. If your dog doesn’t recognize your scent, he won’t come to you.”
While it’s true that dogs rely heavily on their strong sense of smell—a sense that’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as human smell, per PBS—visuals are important, too. In one study published in The Journal of Comparative Psychology, researchers presented dogs with the scent trails of their favorite toys. One of the test groups found their toys at the end of the trail; the others found an unfamiliar toy.
What happened to the pups who didn’t find the toys they’d expected to find?
“The dogs showed measurable signs of ‘surprise,'” the researchers wrote.
We’re sure that those signs were adorable. In any case, the experiment demonstrated that dogs expect to match certain visuals to certain scents. They’re capable of remembering what their owners look like, so if your dog doesn’t seem to recognize you, you’ve got other problems.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, your dog feels a specific set of neural signals when it sees you smiling, per a 2018 study. The research indicates that dogs can tell when we’re feeling good (and, by extrapolation, when we’re feeling other emotions). Keep that in mind the next time you’re grimacing near your pooch.
3. “The best way to communicate with your dog is by talking to it.”
Dogs are capable of learning an astounding number of human words. While capabilities vary by breed, canine intelligence expert Stanley Coren, PhD, claimed the average pooch can understand 165 words or more with consistent training. One border collie named Chaser learned an astounding 1,022 words.
However, dogs certainly don’t interpret language the same way humans do, and if you’re not careful about the way you speak to your dog, you might end up wasting your time.
“I think people talk to their dogs way too much,” says Grossman. “Maybe Disney movies or cartoons have made us think that dogs secretly understand every single thing we say. I do think dogs understand a lot, and they’re certainly capable of learning a lot of words and interpreting tone. But I think that people lean far too heavily on language when explaining situations to their dogs. Some people try to have conversations with their pets to change behavior, and that’s very, very rarely effective.”
The problem? Dogs have a limited ability to think abstractly, and they certainly don’t understand the complexities of human language.
Wife – You don't understand what I'm saying do you?
Me – You talking to me or the dog?
Wife – You.
Me – Oh, no I don't.
— Dan Regan (@Social_Mime) August 22, 2017
“I had this one client who was always saying to her dog, ‘Gentle, be gentle,'” Grossman recalls. “Finally, I asked her, ‘What is your actual goal when you’re telling her to be gentle?’ Think about what behavior you expect to get. Are you getting that behavior after you say the words?”
“If you’re just saying something and not getting the behavior you expect, let’s step back and see what we can do to make that behavior actually happen,” she adds. “Teach them the behavior, then we can tell them the word that goes along with that behavior.”
4. “Dogs make messes in order to get revenge on their human companions.”
On a cold day, when the wind picks up and stabs your face with the force of a thousand icicles, it’s easy to assume nature has it out for you. The insult feels personal. Of course, it isn’t. That’s just nature doing its thing.
The same concept applies to dogs and their, ahem, elimination choices. When you find an unwelcome surprise on your pillow, it certainly feels like an insult. That’s not necessarily the case, however.
“Peeing and pooping [is] something that people often think, ‘Well, the dog pooped on the bed to spite me, or teach me a lesson,'” Grossman says. “But the fact is, most dogs are really into pee and poop. They don’t find it disgusting. The fact that your dog peed on your bed—you might just as easily read that as a gift, not aggression. But again, it’s all conjecture, and it’s not really addressing the problem. It’s really just guessing.”
In the wild, canines use pee and poo as a complex messaging system, explained Carlo Siracusa, director of the Small Animal Behavior Service at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary hospital, to Wired magazine.
The messages embedded in the smell of canine waste “can tell your dog how many other dogs are in the immediate area … whether a particular dog is a friend or an enemy, what he or she had for lunch, and when they were last in the area,” Siracusa said.
How do I get my dog to stop marking his territory??!!!
— ronnie (@veronniecalynn) July 14, 2018
The next time you find a wet spot on the carpet, don’t assume Spike was complaining about the budget dog food. Maybe he was just trying to make his presence known.
5. “To really enjoy life, a dog needs another dog to keep it company.”
Solo dog owners can’t leave the house without facing pretty serious emotional struggle. Dogs hate to see you go. They whine. They give you sad eyes. If they could rend their garments, we’re pretty sure they would.
Still, there’s that whole going to work thing.
The solution, according to some sources, is to get a second dog. That way, the pets can support each other through the dark hours of your workday. No guilt necessary!
It’s certainly true that some dogs are thrilled to have a little brother or sister to pal around with. Sometimes, though, another animal could just compound the emotional problems. In fact, according to some research, the best way to keep your pet calm when you’re not around wouldn’t be to get a second dog; it’d be to get a second you.
“We now have data that suggests that we have selectively bred the domestic dog so that it is strongly biased to love humans (or at least one human) more strongly than it loves other dogs,” wrote Coren in his Psychology Today column, “Canine Corner.”
Coren explained an experiment in which (apparently heartless) researchers left eight mixed-breed dogs alone in a kennel. The dogs were separated into pairs; all the animals had been littermates since they were pups.
When transported to a new, unfamiliar kennel, the dogs’ stress hormones rose steadily, regardless of whether they were with a kennel mate. However, when their human caretaker sat with them in the unfamiliar kennel, their stress levels didn’t rise as significantly and seemed to dissipate “almost immediately” after human-canine interaction.
According to the American Kennel Club, you shouldn’t decide to introduce a second dog into your household to solve problems with your first. Some dogs are fast friends. Others can’t stand each other. And socialization goes both ways. Rather than teaching your fearful dog to be confident, a new, outgoing addition could learn to be nervous.
In short, another dog won’t necessarily fill the void in your lonely pet’s heart. The best thing about a companion dog is also the toughest: You’ll always come first.