Wondering if your dog is a psychic?
It’s not uncommon for an owner to insist that their dog is capable of displaying human like qualities and abilities. That even extends into mind-reading. I know that on any given day I’ll hear:
“This dog can predict when I’m going to leave the house because he gets to the door before I do.”
“My dog got all worked up before the weather turned bad so I know she can forecast storms.”
At a superficial level, it shouldn’t be surprising that many are convinced of their dog’s psychic genius.
Consider this scenario, one hour before you’re to leave for work Poochie begins to follow you into every room of the house. No matter where you go, there she is. Even if Poochie chooses to remain on her bed she continues to observe your every move.
It’s possible that she could even beat you to the door and park herself in front of it. Your seemingly logical conclusion is that the dog must have magically (or psychically) known that you would be leaving the house. You’ll chalk it up to ESP and beam proudly that you’re the parent of the Sylvia Brown of the canine world.
Or maybe this scenario, your mutt Killer begins to slowly pace throughout the house. Back and forth, back and forth. It’s maddening and annoying and you wonder what’s up with him. The slow pace grows slightly more frantic over time. Before long you notice Killer panting and whimpering. He might even refuse to go out back for a bathroom break.
Before you know it clouds begin to form, the skies suddenly darken, and rain pours down in buckets.
Obviously your Killer is the canine equivalent of Al Roker except better looking, less annoying, and yes, psychic. How else could he have known about the impending storm?
But wait, can these dog parents be wrong? Can’t our dogs gaze into the future?
Have you heard the story of Clever Hans?
Back in the early 1900’s there lived a horse named Hans who was thought to possess the ability to calculate arithmetic. During the height of his popularity, he would perform to large crowds and time after time he would astound with his capacity to arrive at the correct response. Hans couldn’t speak, off course, so he would instead stomp his hoof to signify the correct mathematical answer.
Skeptics were only too eager to disprove Hans’ talent and he was given a series of tests to verify his authenticity. Surprisingly, it didn’t make a difference whether his owner was present or not while he was being tested. Nor did it matter if the mathematical problems were given in verbal or written form; Hans always got answer right.
Despite the various challenges and tests given, no person was able to detect fraud or trickery. This astounded the public and only served to increase Hans’ fame and reputation.
That is until a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst proved to everyone that Hans wasn’t demonstrating advanced cognitive skills but was instead picking up on the subtle, almost imperceptible, signals that humans communicate.
As Hans stomped his hoof, every raised eyebrow, every curved smile, each person who straightened their posture in anticipation of a horse arriving at the correct answer, provided Hans with a clue that he was on the right track and offered him a cue as to when to end the stomping.
He simply continued stomping until the overall appearance and postures of the crowd registered the peak of excitement….and then he stopped.
You see, he wasn’t calculating arithmetic. He was reading the facial expressions and body language of the humans around him.
Pretty damn impressive, huh?
So what does this have to do with our dogs? Everything.
This ability to pick up on barely discernible cues is not limited to horses; dogs have long been able to read the many faint indicators we humans give off.
Perhaps due to the evolution of domestication, dogs have learned to interpret our visual cues far beyond our own abilities to do so. In fact, dogs tune in to these visual cues for more than they do to our verbal cues. Without understanding this valuable trait, we’re often led to conclude that our dogs are demonstrating otherworldly and supernatural abilities, such as calculating arithmetic or seeing into the future. As bright as our furry friends are, and they are exceptionally bright and talented, they’re no Einstein’s or Nostradamus’.
Let’s take a second look at our two earlier scenarios…
When Poochie anticipates you leaving and thus beats you to the door, we now understand that she was keenly able to pick up on the small signals which point towards your departure.
These signals may be as uneventful as turning off the alarm clock, taking a shower, putting on your shoes, picking up the keys, or retrieving a jacket from a closet. Either separately or combined, the dog has formed an association to each of these and they become key predictors of things to come.
The same can be said of dogs that show signs of anxiety prior to a storms arrival, sometimes long before. Killer was no doubt clued in to the faint changes in wind speed and barometric pressure that predict an incoming storm. No magic or psychic abilities necessary, just the ability to read signals we either can’t detect or have tuned out on.
Science is just beginning to scratch the surface of what dog’s senses are capable of perceiving. Their sense of sound and smell, for instance, can detect information that fare exceeds our own abilities.
So before we conjure up fantastical ideas of what a dog can do, let’s credit them for having the talent to do something we often struggle with…interpreting the intent of humans and their environment by reading the signs that are all around them.