Have you ever found yourself talking to your dog and got the feeling that he knew what you were saying? Well, it is very likely that your dog DID know what you were saying. The research in the field of Comparative Psychology (the study of the behavior and mental life of animals) has discovered that dogs are much more complex and intelligent than people realize.
In this article, I will present some important research and give an amazing example that shows complex thinking and learning processes in dogs. Hopefully, by the time you finish this article, you will realize that you need to be careful what you say to your dog because they know what you are saying!
A Brilliant Research Idea - Dog Psychology Tests
Traditional psychological research uses tests and experiments that depend on the subject providing feedback of some sort. Whether it is verbal or written responses, the human subject provides the information that in turn, allows the psychologist to define complex psychological processes.
In comparative psychology, this feedback is obviously not available. However, USA Today reported that Stanley Coren, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, came up with a brilliant solution to this problem - use psychological tests designed for young humans that are pre-linguistic or limited-linguistic. This allowed him to make some fascinating discoveries about dog mental functioning.
Dogs Can Learn Human Speech and Count
Coren's research showed that dogs are more like humans than previously thought! So far he's discovered that dogs can learn about 165 words (author's note: there is no indication this is the top limit). Not only specific words but signals also. In addition, dogs can count up to four or five and have a basic understanding of arithmetic.
Think about this research for a moment. A 165 word vocabulary is large enough for complex communication. For a human, knowing that many words in a language would allow us to get by in a foreign country because 165 words would cover all the basics of food, water, directions etc. We might not be able to carry on an in-depth conversation with the inhabitants of the foreign country but we certainly could communicate our basic needs and understand the responses.
The ability to count and understand arithmetic means abstract thinking. Just think back to elementary school when you were trying to learn the concept of counting and how it made no sense. I still remember if Johnny had two apples and Mary gave him one apple, how many apples would Johnny have? Ouch, my head still hurts thinking back to the second grade trying to understand this abstract concept. Yet, a DOG can understand these things without the world view we humans possess. How amazing is that?
So, what is a real world example of the complex thinking processes of dogs? How about a dog using the telephone to call for help!
Dog Calls 911 to Save a Human's Life
It was reported in the news recently where a dog owned by Joe Stainaker called 911 to save his life. Mr. Stainaker has intermittent seizures from a brain injury. To help him live alone, he received a service dog named Buddy, a German shepherd, who was taught to dial 911 when Joe had a seizure. The telephone was set on a speed dial system and the dog was taught how to operate the phone.
Now think about this for a moment. The dog has to make an assessment that Joe is having a seizure, then go to the phone and press the correct buttons.
In September of 2008, Mr. Stainaker had a seizure. His dog ran to the phone and dialed 911. After the dispatcher answered, the dog started whimpering and barking, e.g. communicating that something was wrong. When the police arrived, the dog was barking excitedly as if to alert them that there was a problem.
Stainaker spent two days in the hospital and recovered from the seizure; saved by his dog's call to 911. His dog has called 911 two other times when Mr. Stainaker was having a seizure and ONLY when there was a seizure emergency.
If you think this is rare, Kevin Weaver's life was also saved by his dog calling 911. A diabetic, Weaver's blood sugar dropped to a dangerous low level which incapacitates a person and can be fatal. His beagle named Belle had been trained to use his cell phone speed dial to call 911 if Weaver had a health emergency. When Weaver was stricken by the low blood sugar, his dog called 911 on his cell phone and help arrived. Belle's cell phone call to 911 saved Weaver's life and the dog was the first canine to receive the VITA Wireless Samaritan Award, given to someone who used a cell phone to save a life, prevent a crime or help in an emergency.
But that is not the only way Belle helps Mr. Weaver. Belle also alerts him when his blood sugar is abnormal. How dogs are able to do this is not clearly understood but Weaver says whenever his dog alerts him to a blood sugar problem, he immediately gets his test meter to check and he said Belle has never been wrong. The key point here is that Belle makes a decision based on facts she ascertains and communicates this to Mr. Weaver.
Service dogs perform complex tasks every day. It just doesn't dawn on most people that these dogs are thinking and reasoning independently, making complex decisions that cannot be a function of training. Yes, they are taught to fulfill the role, but just like a person, education is just part of the process. They still have to collect the data and make complex decisions based on the facts. This means they have to analyze a situation and make a decision. There is more to this than simple training; it is complex intelligence processes.
Dogs understand human speech, they understand numbers and can perform complex tasks; tasks that require collecting data, analyzing the data and making the correct decision. They may have four legs and a fur coat but they are very much like people. Do we as people treat them with the respect and consideration they deserve?
The next time you say something to your dog, remember that he probably knows exactly what you are saying!
© Copyright 2010, R. Michael Stone