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Dogs Know Us More Than We Know

(Roger Kethcart, in this treatment of the relationship between dog and man turns to Hollywood to demonstrate the degree of emotional rapport that exists between our two species.)

Have you ever had a rough day at work, only to find your dog, somehow sensing your angst, being even more affectionate when you get home?  Or maybe you’ve been sick in bed when your canine companion decides to uncharacteristically spend the whole day with you by your side.   It’s like they just get us.

Everyone knows that the connection between people and their four-legged friends is a uniquely special one, found in very few human/animal interactions.  But what puzzles us about the relationship between the two species is the disconnect between how much our dogs seem to know about us and how little we seem to know about them.

Some call it a sixth sense.  Some call it psychic ability.  Regardless of the name, dogs undoubtedly have a preternatural ability that allows them to pick up on when we are sad, happy, fearful—really the whole spectrum of emotions.  But that ability also seems to extend to not just emotions, but situations.  They seem to understand when people are in danger without even seeing them.  Or, sometimes they know when someone is coming home, well before they could hear a car pull in the driveway.

Hollywood has certainly recognized this, capitalizing on dogs’ gift in TV and film.  We think of old episodes of Lassie, who always knew when someone was in peril, or this particular scene [] from the movie Turner and Hooch.  Interestingly, if you watch this climactic moment, Tom Hanks doesn’t say or do anything in particular to tip Hooch off as to any danger or to take any action.  Instead, the dog reads the fear in Turner’s eyes, and does what he can to help him.  Their bond was so strong that no words or commands were needed.

In another movie, Air Bud, Buddy the dog is able to recognize when his young owner is down in the dumps.  He makes him feel better and gives him hope when he sinks a basket [].

Though these are sensationalized Hollywood depictions, they provide good case study examples of how dog’s innate “sense” is recognized by society.  If you want to see the films in their entirety for a better (and heart-warming) look at man/dog bonds, they are available with most cable providers [] on demand.

So what exactly is this sense really, and why don’t we have it?

Maybe it can be chalked up to a better, more primal understanding of body language and instincts that we as a “higher” species have lost over time.  Unfortunately, this means it’s a one-way street when it comes to emotions with dogs.  They can understand us, but we have to rely on whining or unusual behavior to help us determine a dog’s emotional state, beyond mere tail wagging or snarling teeth.

Some dog training [] experts, like Kevin Behan, suggest that dogs’ emotional capacities are far beyond what we give them credit for.  What’s more, he argues, our emotions actually shape our dog’s behavior and intellect.  By understanding this, we can learn to be better dog owners, have more success training our dogs, and further strengthen our bonds with them.

Just like in humans, dog behavior and psychology is a deep subject that is a long way off from being fully understood.  Nonetheless, their ability to instinctively recognize our emotions is certainly real and makes us closer to them than some of our closest friends—the very reason we label them “man’s best friend”.

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Published May 25, 2013 by Kevin Behan

2 responses to “Dogs Know Us More Than We Know”

  1. Annie says:

    One of the things I love about dogs is that they read “intentions” far better than humans. I guess intentions could be read as energy of thoughts, projecting outward…my dog Luke and I started a routine that always amazes me; when he can no longer get the marrow in the center of his bone, he finds me and stands by me, staring…maybe he has to bark if I’m distracted. What he wants is for me to get a butter knife from the kitchen to poke out the rest of the marrow-when I did this for the first time, my intention was to help Luke, and to also not waste the most nutritious part of his treat! As I walked over to where his bone was, I made a visual scene/intention in my mind, of picking up the bone with the knife, then holding it and pushing out the marrow as he ate it from the end of the bone. My actions exactly mirrored my intention and Luke allowed me to pick up his bone without growling or trying to grab it. I felt in very clear communication with him, with a positive result. I know this seems simplistic! But I think that in order to understand the way that we communicate with dogs and with others, we can benefit from examining those isolated incidences in which we had that flow dynamic. Had I hesitated and thought that he would bite me, or that I wouldn’t know how to use the knife, etc., this would have brought about a different outcome. I recently read a quote to the effect that “words were invented to disguise our thoughts.” If thoughts could be purely expressed through actions, bypassing language, (actions do speak louder than words), maybe we would understand our dogs better.

  2. kbehan says:

    Lee Kelley and William Campbell make excellent cases for the telepathic transmission of images, that makes a lot of sense to me. We may be doing it more than we know, transmitting and picking up on images but it’s so faint and accompanied immediately with a verbal thought that what’s arising from a deeper source of our consciousness is displaced by this high level cognitive activity and thus it escapes our attention. It’s very interesting how you trusted in the flow. My father once told a worker to get a dog from his kennel, unbeknownst to the worker the dog had mauled someone and was to be euthanized. While I don’t condone the wisdom of the move, my father believed that if the helper didn’t know the dog’s history, there wouldn’t be a problem. This was in the sixties, well before the days of big time malpractice lawyers. And as it turned out my father was right and the man stepped into the dog’s kennel and snapped a lead on him only to be told of the dog’s fate after the dog was loaded into the station wagon on the way to the vets. It’s an unfortunate story but teaches us that a dog will always choose flow over fear if he can feel it, and that is what you communicated to Luke. Tragically, think of all the dogs killed because we don’t well enough understand this principle of flow.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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