How Well Do You Know Your Dog?

It's not kind and can be dangerous to ignore that dogs are dogs, not people.

Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

 Cynthia Vh/Pexels
Source: Cynthia Vh/Pexels

Everybody knows a dog's nose is better than a human nose. As a research scientist, however, the behavioral ecologist Marc Bekoff knows what dogs are capable of doing far better than the average Jack or Jill. He relates that a dog’s nose may be somewhere between 100,000 and a million times more sensitive than a human’s, and if the dog is a bloodhound, its nose may be up to 100 million times more sensitive than the one between our eyes.

But what's remarkable about dog noses adds up to more than just these impressive statistics. "When they can, dogs will spend upwards of 33% of their time with their noses pinned to the ground, and we also know they'll freely put their noses into body parts, including groins and butts, that we think are disgusting and totally inappropriate."

It doesn't take much imagination, therefore, to sense that from a dog's point of view, the world we live in—however much it may physically be the same as the world we know as human beings—must come across to them in ways we cannot easily claim we understand. 

It's a dog's world

I think Bekoff is right when he insists that living with a dog should not be a one-sided affair. We need to know as much as we can about how dogs see the world and their place in it so we can give them the best lives possible. 

Living up to this worthy goal, however, is easier said than done. When I was a child, my mother used to say to us kids, "just because you can doesn't mean you should." As a scientist interested in human behavior in all its diversity, however, I have embraced as well another adage: "Just because you can doesn't mean you will."

Saying this another way, just like humans, dogs don't do what they do just because of the way they have been put together, biologically speaking (although there is a now-discredited view to the contrary). Most of what they end up doing as dogs has to be learned through experience as a part of daily life. Maybe basic body functions such as breathing and wagging their tail may be behavior that's largely "in their genes." But the rest of what they do doesn't come so easily to them. The same holds true for humans, even though we don't have tails to flag our feelings and fears in seemingly provocative ways.  

From this point of view, it would be naïve to think that a dog will do what it can do just because it can do it, anatomically speaking. When all is said and done, there is more to a dog's world than just the physical dog. 

Are dogs our best friends?

Samson Katt/Pexels
Source: Samson Katt/Pexels

There are currently about 77 million pet dogs living in the United States. It is estimated that over 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs every year. In a statistical study of such injuries between 2005 and 2018 (the most recent year for which data were available), dog bites ranked as the 13th leading cause of nonfatal emergency department visits. These injuries are more prevalent among school-age children, people living in less-densely populated areas, and the residents of poorer neighborhoods. Three out of five victims were bitten by the family dog or one living in the neighborhood. Moreover, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, dog bites in children have surged

What's the message here? Knowing the dogs in your life really well—their likes, dislikes, and personal foibles—is not just a way of being kind and thoughtful. This is also a way of staying safe and sound. After all, as I have said in a previous post, it is not too farfetched to think of dogs as wolves in sheep's clothing.

A creative partnership

Learning how to "read" dogs well enough to stay out of trouble makes good sense. However, this is a piece of advice that can be easily misunderstood. Not all dogs are alike, and not simply because they don't all look the same. As Bekoff recently observed, dogs differ, humans differ, and dog-human relationships differ, too. Therefore, "we need to be careful when serving up grand conclusions about what dogs can or cannot do, what dogs know or don't know, or what dogs can learn or cannot learn." 

As he also says, the concern is not merely that like people, dogs differ, and so their relationships with us are going to differ, as well. How they respond as individuals to situations, challenges, and events in their lives can also vary depending on everything from how hungry they are to how stressed out they feel, and so on. 

I want to emphasize, too, that dog-human relationships differ not only because those involved differ as individuals with varying needs and reactions depending on the time, the place, and the circumstances. When dogs live with humans, the routines of daily life may not be the ones that are possible while living on their own, or in the company of other dogs. This fact of life does not have to mean they cannot live a good life. Yes, it is true that most family dogs did not themselves elect to become pets rather than free-ranging agents. But this does not mean they aren't dogs.

Why am I so confident this is so? Because what it means to be a dog—to repeat what I have already said—isn't written in their genes alone. Yes, what all dogs do in life depends a lot on what they physically can do. But what they actually end up doing also depends on who the dogs are, the people they are living with, and the particulars of the lives they have created with one another.

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