Maverick Life


Bone up your tone and don’t scrap the yap

Image: Karsten Winegeart / Unsplash

Dogs have large vocabularies and can infer meaning in growls and can effortlessly figure out if other dogs want to play or fight. But their way with human words is extraordinary.

Apart from people in lands of fire and ice where they never see dogs (or China, where they sometimes eat them), the world is divided between folk who are comfortable around hounds and those who aren’t. 

The reason isn’t whether or not we like dogs but, it seems, whether they like us. And it all depends on how we talk to them.

Researchers at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest trained dogs to lie still in an MRI scanner and watched how their brains reacted to humans talking. To the researchers’ surprise, various tones stimulated the same areas in canines as in humans. The scans showed that dogs were sensitive to emotionally charged sounds like human laughter and crying as well as voice tones.

“The location of the activity in the dog brain is very similar to where we found it in the human brain,” said ethologist Attila Andics. “The fact that we found that these areas exist in a dog brain at all is a surprise.

“We know dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners,” he added, “and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in their dog. But we now begin to understand why.”

Dr Greg Burns and an experimental patient. Image: Dustin Chambers/NYT

Neuroscientist Greg Berns at Emory University in the US, who did a similar experiment, said the area in the brain that responded to rewards in the dogs corresponded exactly to areas in the human brain stimulated by money, music, food and general pleasure. The test-dogs respond, not only to rewards, but to hand signals that they know are followed by a reward or the withholding of one.

“It didn’t have to be like that,” he said. “Dogs’ brains could have been wired completely differently, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Dogs – and probably most animals – have far more sophisticated minds than we give them credit for.

“Scientists find it hard to accept the idea that animals have feelings. Most people who live with dogs understand this intuitively. The confusion comes because we have language and can label those feelings. We have words for things like love, fear, sadness, or guilt. Everything we started doing to elicit positive emotions showed that dogs had corresponding parts of their brains to humans. Most of the dogs had equal responses to both food and praise.”

His research, he says, has given him greater appreciation for the richness of the interior lives of animals and a realisation that they have feelings very much like we do, even though they don’t have words to describe them. “They are what I call non-human persons.”

Smart dog. Image: Don Pinnock
Image: Joe Caione / Unsplash

This similarity explains why dogs out-perform chimpanzees in social tasks. In thousands of years of domestication, dogs have learned (and we have selected those who learned) to be sensitive to what we say. They’re also capable of something no other animal but a chimp and an elephant can do – to look at where we point. And they can read your facial expression.

Dogs have large vocabularies and can infer meaning in growls and can effortlessly figure out if other dogs want to play or fight. But their way with human words is extraordinary. A South Carolina border collie named Chaser, for example, was found to know the names of 1,022 objects.

So the way you talk to a dog determines how it responds to you. They like people who are polite to them. If you fear strange dogs, it’s probably because you don’t know how to address them, which the pooch finds annoying and reacts accordingly.

Image: Alvan Nee / Unsplash

And while we’re on the subject, if the yapping of your neighbour’s dog is driving you crazy, consider this: there’s a good chance that you’re alive today because of barking dogs. Here’s why.  

All dogs today are genetic descendants of the grey wolf. Exactly when domestication began is unknown, but there’s evidence that some human societies had dogs 15,000 years ago. By that time dogs were being buried the same way as humans – and sometimes with humans.

Their main uses would have been for hunting and possibly fighting, but also as an alarm system against human and animal intruders, particularly at night. But here’s the puzzle: grey wolves don’t bark and are generally extremely silent animals, whereas dogs are notable barkers.

Yuval Harari of Jerusalem University, who specialises in Stone Age societies, suggests an answer. If a human band had five puppies and four of them hardly barked at all, they would favour the pup that yapped. It would be given more care, more food and it would have a greater chance of thriving and breeding.

“Over thousands of years,” he says, “this would have created a huge difference between wolves that don’t bark and dogs that do. So barking is a relic of the ancient role – and in many cases, modern role – of dogs. They defended our ancestors against danger.”

Image: Richard Brutyo / Unsplash
Image: James Barker / Unsplash

But they used us too, developing skills in manipulating humans to their own advantage. They were adorable, listened attentively, responded to commands and were demanding of food. So cute, manipulative barking dogs were the ones that survived 15,000 years of human association.

This survival tactic has been spectacularly successful. There are estimated to be more than half a billion dogs on Earth – 148 million in Africa and nine million in South Africa. By comparison, there are only about 150,000 grey wolves, 500 Ethiopian wolves and 250 red wolves.  There’s a lesson in this: being useful to humans is a smart genetic survival strategy. So when dogs yap, cut them some slack. DM/ML


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