The Minds and Hearts of Dogs: Facts, Myths, and In-Betweens

An issue of Time magazine contains many details about dog smarts and feelings.

Posted Aug 21, 2018

Read the latest details about the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and dog<-->human relationships

"One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world." 

"Dogs are like us in their joy and empathy and inexhaustible curiosity, and we -- at least when we're in their presence--become more like them. We are both better species for our very long union." (Jeffrey Kluger)

A new issue of Time magazine called How Dogs Think: Inside the Canine Mind contains a wealth of information about how dogs think, what they think about, and their rich emotional lives. It contains 17 easy-to-read essays in two sections called "A Dog's Mind" and "Dogs and Us," some of which previously appeared in Time and Sports Illustrated. The timing for their collection of essays couldn't be better; August 26 is National Dog Day and it's the "year of the dog." Part of the issue's description reads, "How Dogs Think explores what goes on in the brains of canines and reveals how we can forge meaningful bonds with our pets. The latest research and scientific evidence is here to answer your questions: How does a pack work? What are the best ways to train a dog? How do dogs help combat veterans recover? How can you care for an aging or neurotic pet?" For $16.99 (USA) it's a bargain, however, it's important to point out some misleading over-generalizations that need to be reined in given what we know about the minds of dogs. 

How Dogs Think includes numerous up-to-date accounts of the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs, some of which I'll highlight below. Two important points to mention right off are: (1) There is no "the dog" nor "a canine mind." Dogs come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, and so too do their minds, feelings, and personalities. I would have preferred the subtitle to read "Inside Canine Minds." While some might think this is a meaningless sleight of hand, it's not, and reading through the different essays makes it clear that variability is the name of the game among dogs, and that's what living with these amazing beings is all about and what makes life with them so exciting and often difficult. And, what's so exciting about studying the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much individual variation there is among members of the same species. The interesting challenges are to understand each and every individual for who they are, to come to appreciate why there are these differences in cognitive skills, emotional capacities, and personality, and to understand how these differences influence the sorts of social bonds a dog can form with other dogs and with humans.

The second all-too-often mentioned "fact" about dog-human relationships is that dogs are our best friends and they are unconditional lovers. This is not so. Dogs are not necessarily our best friends nor are they unconditional lovers (for more discussion please see "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?" and Dr. Hal Herzog's "Hurting Pets to Get Attention and Drugs: A Growing Problem"). These myths aren't good for dogs or for humans because not everyone considers dogs to be friends, and dogs are rather picky themselves about the people to whom they're attracted. (For more discussion of some prevailing myths please see "Let's Give Dogs a Break by Distinguishing Myths From Facts.")

Section 1: A Dog's Mind

Despite the fact that these myths are sometimes glossed over, there are numerous very important essays and facts in How Dogs Think. I can't cover them all, but here are some snippets to whet your appetite for more. In the opening introductory essay called "Humans and Dogs: A Tale of Love," Jeffrey Kluger writes about the rich bonds that are formed between dogs and humans and concludes, "Love rarely touches the reasoning parts of the brain. It touches the drama parts, the devoted parts--it touches the parts we sometimes call the heart. For many thousands of years, it's there that our dogs have lived." (Page 7)

The first essay in Section 1, "A Dog's Mind," also by Mr. Kluger, is called "What the World Looks Like to a Dog" and nicely summarizes how new research "peels back the mystery" of what's happening in dogs' minds. He discusses recent research using neuroimaging, a topic on which Emory University neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns elaborates in a later essay called "What Would it be Like to be a Dog?" (For an interview with Dr. Berns please see "What It's Like to Be a Dog" and for discussion of some of recent research please see "Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us.") Mr. Kluger concludes, "Dogs are like us in their joy and empathy and inexhaustible curiosity, and we -- at least when we're in their presence--become more like them. We are both better species for our very long union." (Page 15) Following his essay is a summary of different research projects in a piece called "Dog Bites: News From the Lab." Here we learn about the neurochemistry of mutual gaze between dogs and humans, why some dogs understand what we say, and how to decode dogs' body language

Mr. Kluger's next essay is titled "The Plight of the Neurotic Dog." The subtitle reads, "A canine mind can break down as easily as a human one--and the treatment can be surprisingly similar." I couldn't agree more. In this piece Mr. Kluger focuses on the work of Dr. Nicholas Dodman who has studied the emotional lives of dogs and other animals for many years (for more discussion and an interview with Dr. Dodman, please see "Pets on the Couch: Do Animals Need Freud and Pfizer?") It's essential for all people who share their homes and hearts with dogs to know their dog as the individual who they are, and when things aren't "going right." There is much we can do to help dogs along when things are out of sorts and they need counseling and lots of love from their humans.

The topic of "dog smarts" is covered by Markham Heid in an essay called "Dogs at the Head of the Class." The subtitle for his excellent piece is "Einsteins, mavericks, charmers: There are all kinds of canine intelligence--if we know what we're looking for." Mr. Heid nicely summarizes what we know about the different sorts of intelligences dogs display, and nicely shows that there is no "the dog" (for more discussion please see "Dog Smarts: The Science of What They Think About and Know"). He also discusses nine different types of dog personalities he called Ace, Einstein, Stargazer, Charmer, Expert, Maverick, Socialite, Protodog, and Renaissance Dog. 

While we know quite a lot about dog "smarts" and their cognitive capacities, there's still much to learn. It's clear that dogs display multiple intelligences just as they display individually distinct personalities. One thing is for sure and that is we should be very careful in not underestimating what is going on in the minds of other animals. 

Dogs also display ingenuity, heroism, empathy, and medical skills, topics considered by Lisa Lombardi. In her essay we read about a one-eyed rescue dog who sniffed out cancer, a golden retriever who saved a baby deer, a pit bull who saved a 6-year old from drowning, and a German shepherd who protected a teen during a home invasion. I know that many readers have many more heartwarming stories to add to this list.

Section 1 ends with a piece by Jeffrey Kluger called "A Hall of Fame of Pop-Culture Pups" in which he discusses fictional dogs who "have thrilled the world" (Page 44) and an essay by Courtney Mifsud called "Dogs at the Extremes: One Species but Lots of Models." She writes about dogs who are the smartest, dumbest, loudest, biggest, oldest, and one with the longest tongue. 

Section 2: Dogs and Us

"The more you generalize about dogs--saying they can't do this or they don't do that--the more you find that generalization is false...Dogs will fool you every time; they're much more capable than some people give them credit for." (Mark Derr)

This section begins another essay by Markham Heid called "Human to Dog: You Complete Me." The subtitle is "We need our dogs so much--and vice versa." His subtitle made me think about the online title for Mr. Kluger's essay "Humans and Dogs: A Tale of Love" that reads, "Why Dogs and Humans Love each Other More than Anyone Else." Both pieces are well done and extremely thought provoking, instead,  as I mentioned above, we need to be very careful about overgeneralizing about the positive aspects of dog-human relationships. I personally would have included the word "some" in Mr. Kluger's online title -- "Why Some Dogs and Some Humans..." and indicated in Mr. Heid's subtitle that some people need dogs so much and some dogs need us as well. I don't mean to knit-pick here, but as we learn more about more about the dog<->human relationships, it's clear we need to be careful with sweeping generalizations about the nature of these bonds. Regardless, Mr. Heid nicely covers much of what we know about dog<->human relationships and aptly notes my concern with exaggerating the nature of these bonds. He concludes, "Like all relationships, this one is destructible, and it requires attention and care. But as with all relationships too, if we put in the love and put in the work, it can provide us enormous rewards." (Page 58) Of course, the same can be said about the well-being of a dog who is lucky enough to find herself or himself in a respectful and loving relationship in which they feel safe and at peace

The next essay, also by Mr. Heid, is called "How Dogs Would Fare Without," with a subtitle that reads, "If humans disappeared tomorrow, domestic dogs would have to call on their wild side in order to survive." This wide-ranging thought experiment is worth the price of admission to this wonderful collection of essays. He begins, "Let's be honest: Your dog would be completely lost without you." (Page 60) However, the ensuing discussion in which various researchers and others partook shows that this isn't necessarily so, and there are differences in opinion among them concerning which types of dogs would most likely survive and which traits would most likely be favored in a world without humans.

Mr. Heid also writes, "Indeed, many of the traits that make dogs our best friends in the first place are the ones that would help them persevere in our absence." (Page 60) Sure, some dogs would miss their humans, but it's been estimated that around 80% of dogs are on their own or pretty much on their own, so there's a large number of dogs who might not really miss their or other humans. Nonetheless, of course, the story gets more complicated, because some humans are sources of love and support for some dogs and these dogs might indeed suffer at the loss of what their humans had done for them. The essay is a gem for stimulating discussions about who dogs are and the sorts of relationships they form with humans and with other animals, who also would be affected by the loss of humans. It's clear that this is where individual differences among dogs come into play and sweeping generalizations about who would make it and who wouldn't are rather limited. Along these lines, Psychology Today writer and dog expert Mark Derr writes, "The more you generalize about dogs--saying they can't do this or they don't do that--the more you find that generalization is false...Dogs will fool you every time; they're much more capable than some people give them credit for." (Page 65)

The next six essays in this section are called "Companions, After the War is Over" (heartwarming stories about the many ways in which dogs help combat veterans recovering from mental and physical wounds; for more discussion please see "Birds of a Feather: Hope, Healing, and the Power of Animals"), How to be a Master at Being a Master," "The Best dog Breed Ever?" (and how we must do all we can do to ensure they're all happy, healthy, and sociable), Bred for Beauty--and For Trouble" (in which it's noted that selective breeding can have a profound downside and that concerning puppy mills and bad breeders, "beer beware"), "The Kissable, Cuddly Wonder of the Puppy," and "The Good News for the 'Bad Newz' Dogs." The last piece is a short Q & A with dog rehabilitation expert, Ethan Gurney, who talks about how to help traumatized dogs. Each is packed with fascinating and important information, and taken together they truly put a cap on the outstanding essays that are contained in How Dogs Think

Let dogs feel the love and let's appreciate each and every dog for their unique behavior and personality

As I wrote above, How Dogs Think is a true bargain. It is packed with useful information and how what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs has practical implications and applications for giving dogs the very best possible lives in an increasingly human-dominated world. It surprises many people to learn that numerous companion dogs, including those who are fortunate enough to share their life with a human(s), are highly stressed. However, when you think about it, they're always trying to adapt to a human-oriented/dominated world in which their wants and needs are secondary to those of their own and other humans. An interesting challenge is to understand each and every individual for who they are, and to come to appreciate why there are marked differences in cognitive skills, emotional capacities, and personalities.

Please stay tuned for more discussion of these and other topics that focus on dog behavior and dog-human relationships. Canine science is a rapidly developing field, and almost daily something appears in my email inbox about research in this area. Available data make it very clear that dogs are not necessarily our best friends and are not unconditional lovers, so it's high time to recognize these facts and learn more about why this is so.

We owe it to dogs to learn more about the various relationships they form with humans and more about who they are and what they feel. We need to better understand their perspective and how they sense their world. As we do, it will surely help us appreciate that there likely are very good reasons why not all humans consider dogs to be their best friends, and why not all dogs are unconditional lovers.

As we learn more about dog-human relationships and dog behavior, there will be many valuable lessons about how to form and maintain the closest and best possible reciprocal social bonds given who the individual dog is and who the humans with whom they interact are.

When we love and respect dogs for who they are, it is a win-win for everybody. A healthy dog-human relationship has to be good for all of the individuals who are involved. We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are fortunate to have us in their lives, too.

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