"Do Dogs Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves?"

Updated: Sep 21

How Dogs Ignore Sensory Information in Favor of Emotional Bonds.

Originally published in slightly different form on March 4, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.

[Note: This article is a brief departure from my Unified Dog Theory series.]

“Everything we feel about our dogs is right. But everything we think we know about dogs is wrong.” —Kevin Behan

Things Have Changed a Lot...

Things have changed a lot since veteran police dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan wrote those words in 1992. Yet strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely), most of the ideas Behan first proposed—that pack formation is a function of prey size, that the wolf pack is a self-emergent system, that emotion is the key to learning—have been validated by modern research.

Behan: “My ideas directly contradict more familiar ones that are currently in fashion, but don’t let an initial sense of resistance distort my message. If you bought this book you’re already determined to succeed with your dog or puppy. All you need is a little dog sense.”

What does Behan mean by “dog sense?”

I think he simply means trying to see the world from the dog’s point of view, not our own. This is what I like to call the difference between anthro-pomorphizing dogs and dogthro-pomorphizing ourselves.

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, who heads the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College (and is the author of the NY Times Bestseller, Inside of a Dog), is keenly aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism. In 2007, she co-wrote a paper on the subject with fellow PT blogger, Dr. Marc Bekoff. In it they state: “Domestic dogs may be a particularly good animal for the study of anthropomorphisms, as recent evidence supports the speculation that domestication has produced a species unusually adept at interpreting and producing signals salient to humans.”

In her most recent blog article, Horowitz writes, “The cues we give are often subtle. We might not even know that we are giving a different cue when we rise from our chairs to go to the fridge, as opposed to rising to take the dog for a walk. Your dog does.”

She then discusses a recent study where a group of dogs—well-trained in the art of detecting illegal or dangerous materials—were brought into a room where no drugs or explosives were hidden. The dog’s handlers, however, were told that these substances had been hidden, and were told exactly “where they were.” The dogs gave false alerts, which matched where the handlers thought the illegal substances were located.

Horowitz: “Either the handlers [unconsciously] tipped off the dogs to what they thought were the correct locations ... or the handlers simply misreported what the dogs were doing. They might have ‘thought’ or ‘sensed’ that they saw the dog alert to a scent. This is classic confirmation bias: you see what you expect to see.”

Confirmation Bias With a Tail

Since the dogs were trained to either bark when finding a targeted material, or to sit and bark, it’s doubtful that the handlers misreported what the dogs were doing. However, Horowitz’ comment about confirmation bias does ring true. I have often said that “Dogs are confirmation bias with a tail ... if they’re in a situation where there’s nothing interesting going on and someone with a strong enough desire comes along and wants them to do something, they’ll usually find a way to do it.”

This brings us back to Kevin Behan, someone who is more than a little familiar with the process used to train detection dogs (he even invented some techniques still used by working-dog trainers today).

In his book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dog’s and Ourselves, Behan discusses the importance of emotion and desire in training detection dogs: “The dog is trained to become emotionally aroused by one smell versus another. In the step-by-step training process, the trainer attaches an ‘emotional charge’ to a particular scent so that the dog is drawn to it above all others. And then the dog is trained to search out the desired item on cue.”

Behan also says that over his many years of training detection dogs he’s developed a long “standing, take-it-for-granted state of awe in regards to what a dog can smell.” Yet in this case, the dogs’ amazing olfactory senses seem to have been overriden by something else. What motivated them to ignore what their noses were telling them was true? Since none of the usual scents that the dogs in this study had been trained to detect were in the room, what “desired item” were these dogs drawn to?

The scientists conducting the study don’t ask. They write, “This confirms that handler beliefs affect outcomes of scent-detection dog deployments.”

A Missing Piece?

Well, obviously, there’s a missing piece here. It wasn’t the handler’s beliefs that the dogs were responding to; their beliefs would have meant nothing to the dogs. But if the handlers beliefs affected their own behaviors in some subtle way—as Horowitz says might have happened—then it might have been those behaviors—those micro-expressions, shifts in body language, the direction of their gaze, possibly even shifts in breathing—that had an effect on each dog’s performance.

There’s a pretty simple way to test this. Set up four HD, slow motion video cameras inside the room to record every breath, micro-expression, etc. that the handlers exhibit, and run the video for an expert in human body language to examine. If such micro-behaviors can be detected by such an expert, and if the dog happened to be looking at the handler at the time these behaviors were produced, then you might have a clearer answer about how the dogs were reading these oh-so subtle cues.

However, I would go a step further and suggest that it wasn’t the handlers’ beliefs or their behaviors, it was the handlers’ desires—the desire that their dogs find the proper location of the scents—that led to the false alerts. If there’s one thing that could make a dog ignore what his sense of smell is telling him is right, it would have to be the emotional bond he has with his owner or trainer, something dogs excel at above all other species. In fact, it’s the emotional bonds dogs form with us that make them such steadfast and tenacious readers of our body language, etc.

Yet, I would go even further and suggest that the dogs in this study may have also been picking up mental images from their handlers about where they believed the substances were located.

Can Dogs Pick Up Mental Images From Their Owners?

I know this idea—that dogs can pick up mental images from humans, especially from their owners or trainers—, may sound fantastical (even though Dr. Rupert Sheldrake has done extensive research verifying this idea), I’ve had enough experiences where when I have a quick, passing mental image of taking a dog for a walk and the dog wakes up from a nap so that I feel like I’m on fairly solid ground with this. (In fact, one of the dogs staying with me today just woke up, while I was writing this, and came over, as if expecting me to leash her up.)

The idea that dogs can pick up mental images from their owners or handlers is also testable! All you’d have to do is set up the same basic experiment, but instead of having one handler, the dogs would have two. One—the dog’s primary working partner—would be given the false information about where the scents were located, but would have no direct contact with the dog. He or she would be in a control room, watching the search on a video monitor. Meanwhile the 2nd handler would be working with the dog, inside the room where the scents were supposedly located. This person would not be given the false information as to the scents’ locations, just that they were hidden somewhere in the room.

If the dogs still gave false alerts, it wouldn’t be because of the 2nd handler’s beliefs, or even because of his or her desires. It would either be inexplicable—a random, meaningless anomaly—or it would indicate that the dog had some kind of subtle emotional bond with his primary handler, and was able to pick up information from him or her about the false locations without needing to be in the same room with that person.

It seems to me that much of dognitive science is hobbled by the predicate beliefs that nature is random and that animals learn through trial and error. There is nothing random about a dog’s behavior. Yes, they read our micro-expressions, and our body language, and are perhaps even able to cue-in to changes in our breathing (which is what may have happened with the dog who just came over, expecting a walk.) But more than that, dogs feel what we feel. They are always tuned-in to our emotions.

This is something every dog lover knows. And I think it’s deserving of scientific inquiry.


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