Dogs have natural-born superpowers of observation and sensitivity.
A friend of mine told me about her elderly dog, Kimo, who seemed to be suffering from what human doctors might label as a failure to thrive. Kimo didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to go outside, and didn’t want to interact. My friend and her husband sat down one evening and had a long, painful talk about whether it might be time to call the euthanasia vet. Kimo seemed to have understood the conversation, because the next day he was up and about, eating and asking to go outside.
Another friend told me that her dog seems to have a sixth sense about cheese. She has only to think about getting up and going to the refrigerator to cook or eat something with cheese, and her dog Batman will magically appear in the kitchen, waiting in a lovely “sit.” He doesn’t do this for all foods — just cheese. Yet another friend told me that his dog reads his mind about frisbees. This friend can merely think the word “frisbee” — even while lying on the couch — and his dog will begin barking and will run excitedly to the door, tail wagging in anticipation.
I hear stories like these all the time from the human companions of dogs. And, invariably, the question comes up: Is my dog psychic? I’ve had reason to wonder this myself. Most recently, my dog Bella seemed to have caught me out trying to take her to a veterinary appointment. Every afternoon, I take Bella for a walk in one of the parks near my house, and she is always excited. She waits by the door as I get on my shoes, and then she runs outside and waits by the car. But one day, when I happened to be planning on stopping at the vet’s office on the way to our walk — she had been very itchy — she hung back, refusing to leave the house. How did she know that I had nefarious intentions?
These stories do not, I’m sorry to say, prove that dogs are psychic. Our dogs are probably not clairvoyant, nor are they bending the laws of nature with their “psychic” acts. The stories suggest something even better: Dogs have natural-born superpowers of observation and sensitivity. In fact, the seemingly psychic abilities of our dogs can be explained by the latest scientific findings in the study of canine cognition.
Dogs are generally quite empathetic, particularly when it comes to their primary human social contact. Our dogs can sense what we are feeling, by reading emotions in our faces and movements, and perhaps even by gathering olfactory cues about our mood.
Scientists studying the evolution of dogs from wolves believe that dogs and humans “co-evolved,” meaning that the two species have partnered so closely that neither would be where they are without the other. Because of this partnership, dogs have evolved a whole toolbox of social and cognitive skills that help them understand and communicate with humans. For example, dogs have a dedicated region of the brain for processing human faces, which helps explain their exquisite sensitivity to human social cues.1 This may explain why our dogs seem, at times, even more, perceptive than our closest human loved ones about how we are feeling. Our dogs may sense, for example, that we are feeling sad or angry, even when the humans around us fail to notice. Our dogs are paying very close attention.article continues after advertisement
Predicting future events
Our dogs seem eerily adept at predicting what we’re going to do. Bella is sometimes standing ready by the door, frisbee in mouth, before I have gotten up from my desk, before I’m even aware of having the thought, “Time to take Bella to the park.” Part of the explanation for this is that there is a lag time between when we initiate movement and when we are consciously aware of having decided to move. Dogs are watching very closely, scanning for clues about what we are going to do next. Before we give a verbal signal (“Let’s go play!”), we have likely already given several nonverbal cues about our intentions. It is often said that in a human conversation, as much as 60-90 percent or more of the interaction is nonverbal, depending on the individuals who are interacting and context. We exchange information through facial expression, body posture, hand gestures, and possibly odors. The same is true for our communications with dogs. We may not even be aware of all the nonverbal signals we are giving. On occasion, a dog might tell us what we’re “saying,” for example that we’re upset or excited, without our knowing what we’re doing. So, it isn’t surprising that dogs seem, at times, to predict what we’re going to do.
We tend to take human experience as the baseline or normal; if we do, then dogs do have “extrasensory” perception. Massaging the definition of ESP a bit to mean “information hidden from the normal human senses,” dogs actually possess this skill in spades. The sensory world of dogs overlaps with ours, but also extends well beyond ours in some areas. Smell is the most obvious sensory modality in which dogs excel, having a far more powerful nose and a much larger area of the brain dedicated to processing olfactory information than humans. Dogs can also hear sounds that we cannot hear and will pick up on different visual information than we do.
So, no, dogs are not psychic, but they might as well be. They have incredible skills when it comes to reading, predicting, and intuiting the feelings and intentions of their human companions. We could do our dogs a favor by trying to be as observant and sensitive toward them as they are toward us. Our dogs will certainly appreciate it if we pay more attention to communications from them, and if we can become more tuned in to subtle changes in their behavior and what these might mean about what our dogs are thinking and feeling.
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1. Daniel D. Dilks, Peter Cook, Samuel K. Weiller, Helen P. Berns, Mark Spivak, Gregory S. Berns. Awake fMRI reveals a specialized region in dog temporal cortex for face processing. PeerJ, 2015; 3: e1115 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.1115