(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 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQjqQJZbRV4] 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 [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX1qMlcLL40].
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 [http://www.cable.tv/] 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 [http://naturaldogtraining.com/] 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”.