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Dog facts you probably didn't know

Updated on March 28, 2012

1. Dogs can read our facial expressions -- (no, really).

Humans have had dogs since, well, we were cavemen. Dogs have evolved not merely alongside us, but in a symbiotic response to us. In some pretty surprising and unexpected ways, this has led to dogs evolving into, essentially, the type of almost supernatural animal companion that we see in fantasy and literature.

We all know dogs are descended from wolves, way back. All dogs -- no matter how much you try to convince yourself that Chihuahuas came from rats, they share the same common ancestor as a black lab or a husky. The stunning variety between the various breeds is pretty much completely due to humans. We were selectively breeding dogs before we knew what selective breeding meant. Over the millenia, we have created breeds as diverse as the Great Dane to the Shih-tzu, and all by selecting for certain traits, like hunting or guarding or how cute it looks in a purse.

But while we were selecting for traits that would make dogs useful companions or killer fashion accessories, we were also tangentially selecting for traits that would help dogs understand us better. You know, for survival, since we were essentially making them dependent on us for survival. They didn’t want to screw up and lose their meal ticket, so they evolved the ability to read our facial expressions.

Yep, you read that right. Dogs can read human facial expressions, in the exact same way adult humans read each other’s facial expressions. In fact, the ability to read a human facial expression is shared by only a few species, as far as we know -- humans, rhesus monkies, and dogs. And here’s the kicker: Dogs are better at it than rhesus monkies or human babies.

This trait has become so intrinsic to dogs and how they interact now that there are actually huge packs of feral dogs in Moscow who survive on this trait -- they are called the “begger dogs,” and have used their ability to read human facial expressions to successfuly beg for food, learn to ride subway trains, and even the right time to cross the street, so as to avoid becoming roadkill. But that’s not all . . .

2. Dogs understand much more of our speech than we realize

The loyal or wise and supernatural animal companion is a common trope in popular fantasy, including the daemons of the Golden Compass to the direwolves in Game of Thrones to Peter Pan's loyal Nana, to name a very few.

Interestingly, by evolving companion animals in tandem with us, we have essentially created the real-world equivalent of our ideal fantasy animal companion. In fact, we're so good at breeding small furry humanoids that it seems we’re right on course to breed us up a Planet of the Apes style of sentient species. While we’ve been keeping a suspicious eye on those damn monkeys, dogs have been quietly gathering intel on us.

Dogs -- especially some particularly intelligent breeds -- can understand up to 500 or 600 words, compared to the average 300-word vocabulary of a toddler. One particularly dedicated (or insane?) psychologist read about a German Shepard who could successfully identify 200 different objects, and figured he could do better. So he bought a little border collie puppy and began training her to recognize nouns. Over time, he taught her to recognize 1,022 nouns, a canine record.

Although this is probably completely unnecessary to point out, we’re talking nouns here, as in, “a person, place, or thing.” So this isn’t even the dogs entire vocabulary, since most dogs also understand at least a few action verbs, such as, “sit,” “stay,” “walk,” and “car ride.”

Do you know how many words the average toddler knows? Less than that dog -- the average toddler aged 2-3 years knows between 100 - 300 words. So your average dog can read your emotions better and understand your conversation better than your average 3 year old. I suppose the argument could be made that our dogs understand us far better than the average teenager, too.

3. Dogs developed barking to communicate with humans

Not content with eavesdropping on us, dogs actually developed a way to communicate with us. You know how dogs bark? Wolves don’t bark like that, at least not as adults. Wolves, as we know, will yip and howl, but they don’t have the variety of percussive, full-throated barking that dogs have developed to communicate with their humans. This isn't an anatomical difference issue, either -- wolf pups will bark during play, but they grow out of it.

Domesticated dogs bark as a means to communicate with their human companions. It's what's called a "neotenic trait" and essentially means that something usually common in the juvenile stage has been kept in the adult stage. When Dmitry Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, began trying to isolate the genes that made dogs so easy to train, he decided to domesticate foxes. The foxes bred for domestication show neotenic traits such as floppy ears.

What Belyaev and his researchers learned was that when you select for a trait -- like gentleness or biddability -- then certain physical traits of domestication show up as well, like floppy ears and a desire for human contact. As humans have selectively bred dogs throughout history, biddability and the desire for human contact is a trait we've selected for.

Humans have never wanted dogs who are dominant or even equal to us -- we have wanted companion animals who are loyal. The bark is a neonetic puppy trait that just came along for the ride with other selected traits, and evolved into a form of cross-species communication in it's own right. The differing barks a dog will use are so universally understood, that even non-dog owners can usually recognize the difference between, “I want to play!” and “I will rip off your face right now if you take one more step.”

4. Dogs prefer family units, not pack pecking orders.

You’ve probably gathered by now that while dogs were descended from a common wolf ancestor, humans have done a really excellent job of fine-tuning them into our furry best friends forever. Despite that, we persist in insisting that because dogs evolved from wolves, they still adhere to the dominance/ pack mentality. You know, like human beings (who evolved from a shared ancestor in the Homindae family) still like to pick fleas out of each other’s hair and eat them.

The problem with this assertion is, in a nutshell, that it’s wrong. It's wrong on two levels -- one, there’s no such thing as a “pack leader,” and two (as we’ve already demonstrated), dogs aren’t wolves. Their evolutionary path and ways of relating to humans has advanced far past wolves.

Now, as far as the “no such thing as a ‘pack leader’ in wild wolf packs, it works like this: The closest thing to a pack leader is more like our concept of a tribal chief or minor king -- a leader who has seniority and respect derived from skill or experience. Interestingly, just as in human groups, wolves seem to choose leaders based in part on charisma. When wolves hunt and play as a pack, the role of “leader” also seems to shift and flow, for much the same reason it would in a human pack.

To explain this, look around you and name the first five people you see. Now imagine you’re surviving the zombie apocalypse with those five people. Pretty quickly, it’s going to become apparent that they have different skill sets for different situations. Maybe Sue over in the corner will turn out to be a great scavenger, and when you go out on scavenging missions you’ll follow her lead. But your co-worker Bob, there, the one who surreptitiously sharpens his paperclips and thinks no-one notices? Well, he’s a killer, and you’ll definitely want to follow his lead when out hunting the zombie menace.

Wolves are the same way. In fact, the wolf “pack” and human groups are structured in surprisingly similar ways, which leads to why wolves were domesticated into ideal companion animals so easily.

But, as we pointed out earlier, dogs have evolved past wolves in some sense. Leadership in wolf packs is an uncertain, often-shifting state. A leader can be challenged or toppled -- a trait we’ve done our best to breed out of dogs. We like our companion animals agreeable and obedient; dangerous to strangers, but not their owners. Even the bad dog owners, the ones who beat and mistreat their dogs, are counting on the fact that the dog will not challenge their dominance like a wolf in a similar situation would.

Dogs, having evolved alongside humans, have shifted toward a more community/ family-unit mindset. In fact, the advice of many dog trainers today sounds suspiciously similar to the the Authoritative mode of parenting widely recognized to most likely produce happy and well-adjusted (human) children.

5. Dogs know right from wrong.

Basically, dogs value traits such as fairness, clear communication, politeness, admitting fault, and honesty. They do, in fact, exhibit a basic moral and ethical concept of right and wrong and what is "fair play."

"When [dogs] play, they use actions . . . that could be easily misinterpreted by the participants. Years of painstaking video analyses by one of us (Bekoff) and his students show . . . that [dogs] carefully negotiate play, following four general rules to prevent play from escalating into fighting." -- Scientific American

In short, these rules are:

  1. Communicate clearly.
  2. Mind your manners.
  3. Admit when you are wrong.
  4. Be honest in your actions.

According to Bekoff and company, "playing fair," or being ethical and moral for the greater good, is an evolved adaptation. It's something that is clearly present in both canine and human relationships; an evolutionary adaptation that allows the parties in question to create and maintain important relationships.

"Canids, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society, which is necessary to ensure the survival of each individual. Basic rules of fairness guide social play, and similar rules are the foundation for fairness among adults. This moral intelligence, so evident in both wild canines and in domesticated dogs, probably closely resembles that of our early human ancestors." -- Scientific American

Dogs exhibit these traits much like human children do, when playing and interacting as puppies. It seems that when we developed civilization and brought dogs along for the ride, we went ahead and created a species of small, furry, perpetual children.



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    • Natashalh profile image


      6 years ago from Hawaii

      I could not agree more with any of your points! I have two dogs and I see them exemplify each of your points every day. They clearly understand me, I understand them and I can tell they know when they did something wrong. As soon as I see my girl dog, I can tell if she was "bad" because I can see it on her face. She should lern not to look so guilty!

      Voted up and useful.

    • Nature by Dawn profile image

      Dawn Ross 

      6 years ago

      Awesome! "no matter how much you try to convince yourself that Chihuahuas came from rats"... very funny. :D

      Dogs know 500-600 words... I keep having to come up with new ways to say 'walk'. Next it was w-a-l-k, then stroll, then you-know-what, then that thing we do with the dogs, etc.

      The barking habit... I didn't know that. Makes sense, though.

      Thanks for sharing! :0)

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Incredible hub. I remember watching a documentary on the BBC a while ago, that highlighted many of the points you make. Whenever I used to see people trying to dominate dogs, it used to make me feel uneasy. I've always treated my dog like just another member of the family, and she's never given us any problems.

      Somehow, I knew dogs could read our facial expressions. My dog always knows when I'm down and she'll come up to me and nuzzle my hand. Great work. Voted up.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are right on with this hub! We just got a puppy and it is amazing how bright this dog is; he knows immediately what we are thinking and the mood we are in, and he is constantly watching us and interpreting our moods. It really is amazing to watch. Great hub!

    • Sneha Sunny profile image

      Sneha Sunny 

      6 years ago from India

      Wow.. What an interesting hub. I didnt knew this much about dogs. Thanks.

      Keep posting more.. :-)


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