What Do Dogs Know About Us?

Quid and I have struck a deal. Every morning she flies up the stairs, leaps onto our bed, and attacks my nose with her sharp little teeth. And I am awakened. Oh wait, no; we don’t have a deal. She just does that. It is vexing and charming at once. […]

Quid and I have struck a deal. Every morning she flies up the stairs, leaps onto our bed, and attacks my nose with her sharp little teeth. And I am awakened.

Oh wait, no; we don’t have a deal. She just does that. It is vexing and charming at once. Just at the moment of nose-attack I can smell the sleep collected on her breath and fur. It mingles with the odor of the other dogs in the room and is beginning to smell, to me, like home. It has been six months since she left her natal litter of 10 siblings and joined our family of three humans, two dogs, and one cat. And it has been a few months since she went from being a very young puppy to an adolescent, her brain trailing her body in development. Recently, she has become more interested in contact of any sort with us. She minds where we are, beating a hasty path after us if we rise from a chair to leave the room, sometimes licking our ankles as we go. She lies next to me on the couch, her body contorted to maximize body-to-body contact.

book cover with "The Year of the Puppy: how Dogs Become Themselves" and dog stretching on a couch
This article has been excerpted from Alexandra Horowitz’s forthcoming book, The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves (Viking)

It feels as if she has come to a different level of awareness of us. She is seeing us; she is minding us. With this she has developed a knowing look. Picking up a peanut-butter-jar lid from the floor, she gently mouths it and carries it over to a dog bed, the prey captured and brought back to her den. And then she looks directly at me as she begins to gnaw it. Outside she picks up a perfect maple leaf by the stem and lightly pads away inside with it, glancing backward until she is out of our view. Another day she hurries into my son’s room, then saunters out carrying his sock, lazily mouthing it, looking right at me. There is a real understanding going on there, between my seeing her and her seeing me see her (and now my seeing her see me see her). And it is not an understanding of the nested seeings; it’s an understanding of who we are, and how we tend to react, and what that means for the actions she is doing at the moment. It is what causes puppies to discover that your tone of voice, when you catch them aiming their head toward a pile of some other dog’s poo in the park, will be followed by your interfering—so they hurry up and grab a mouthful and run.

When I was writing my first book on dog cognition, I asked my friend what he would like to know about a dog’s mind. At the time, he lived with Maggie, a good-natured mixed breed. “What does she know about me?” he said. His response has stayed with me, as it is not uncommon: People wonder not just what their dogs are thinking but what they are thinking about them—whether they see through our deceits or feel the love we feel for them.

Science is quiet on what they know about us. But to be sure, they are thinking about us, and it is striking to be held in their gaze. They learn our habits well enough to show us when we veer from them; they anticipate our actions even before we are aware of them. And yet they level no judgment, as happy to see you on the toilet as at the door, flinching not at your nakedness or weakness. We adopted a puppy, not thinking that she would see us so well.

With her heightened attention to us, Quid knows right when we are about to leave the house. There is a reason she keeps her head on my foot: That way, the foot can’t walk me out the door. She has learned that we now might leave. It is reasonable that she might have thought otherwise. She was born on the cusp of a pandemic, and even as her world opened to include us, and eventually a city’s worth of other people and dogs, we have been with her continually since she came to our home. If one of us left, another stayed; there was no occasion on which we all had to leave. To acclimate her, we practice leaving—almost as much for us as for her. We all step out of the house together, go on an aimless five-minute walk, then step back in without fuss. Then we leave for 20 minutes. Then for an hour. And then we drive off in a car, only returning two hours later. She seems to handle separation from us well, in that on our return the house is intact. But she greets us with a new desperation, wiggling so hard that the energy comes out of her mouth in the form of a continual cry.

Observing us, she has done a decent job of training us. If I presume to stop tickling her belly before she deems it time to stop, she looks at me with great seriousness of purpose, then paws me, requesting more tickles. I tickle her more. Sadly, she finds that not everyone is so easily persuaded. As I sit on the couch one day responding to my mistress’s every demand for tickles, the cat slowly wanders between us. I stop tickling, and Quid, per her wont, tries to paw me—pawing the cat instead. The cat, having not been trained in fulfilling the puppy’s every request, responds by calmly but firmly biting her on that paw. Quid looks completely surprised. She paws again. The cat bites more forcefully this time. Quid tries again. The cat bites with vehemence and a yowl that communicates even to the unschooled. Not only do I suddenly see how much more trainable I am than the cat; I realize that though I thought Quid had learned to “touch” me to make a request, maybe what she has really learned is something slightly different: to “stretch your leg out” when you want something. Maybe to her, the communication was not the touch; it was the feeling inside her when her leg moved—whether there is a cat in the way or not.

Barks, whines, and growls aside, dogs mostly talk with us through actions. A paw on my hand: a request to keep petting her. Turning her head away: a refusal, expression of distaste or disgust. Head resting on my lap: something between possession and affection. Every dog learns, by watching, how to get the attention of their person in order to communicate what they want. And we, if we observe carefully, might be able to shape just what that attention-getter is. Before a dog starts barking to express an urgent drive to go outside, they often have come in to check on us as we fixate on the computer, stare at us, nose-bump our leg, give a little whine, and, if none of these work, come out with a bark (all these levels of attention-getting can be seen in interaction between dogs too). If we would rather they not bark to talk, better that we be alert to that first attempt to communicate.

Dogs’ knowing anything at all about us begins with our taking them in—with our domesticating of them (or our hitchhiking on their own self-domestication) many thousands of years ago—and is extended by their tendency to pay attention to our faces. Not only are they very good at looking at our faces; they are also skilled at reading those faces to get information about the mind behind them.

When looking at our faces, dogs appear to see more than just an array of parts; they seem to understand that our eyes—and our gazes—hold meaning. Gazes relay emotion, convey attention, and impart information. At less than a year old, Quid can follow my gaze to find the food I have dropped, or to quickly grok if I am about to head toward my sneakers or my chair—to know what I know, after a fashion.

By thinking about what we know, dogs become skilled at some very humanlike guile. One study found that dogs forbidden to eat a treat are pretty good at following those directions when a person is in the room with them with the lights turned on, but are more likely to steal treats if the lights are turned off (notably, dogs’ night vision is much better than ours). If the person leaves the room, forget it; most dogs studied in the various experiments that have asked them to obey even in the person’s absence just go right ahead and disobey as soon as the person is gone. Out of room, out of mind. When the person comes back into the room after dogs have been disobedient, the dogs might react “guiltily”—ducking their head, looking away, frantically wagging their tail low between their legs—but, as a study I ran found, this reaction is not an indication of their guilt at disobedience but of their sensitivity to whether we think they are guilty. For they show more of this guilty look when their person thinks they have eaten the treat—whether or not they have—than when the person thinks they haven’t. Again, dogs read us—and in this case, our unconscious body language.

A lot of dog-cognition research relies on this kind of setup: asking a dog not to eat something scrumptious and then testing in what situations they go ahead and eat it anyway. Even without treats, though, dogs in experimental studies have shown their sensitivity to what people know. One research group set up a slightly unusual scene for person and dog: The two sit on opposite sides of a room. Between them are two barriers—one transparent, one opaque; on the dog’s side of each barrier is a dog toy. The toys are just about identical; allowed to grab either, dogs choose at random. But if asked to “fetch” by the person on the other side of the barriers, dogs choose the toy next to the transparent barrier; they think about which one the person can see. Dogs, not even language users, translate fetch into fetch that one that I must be referring to because it’s the only one I have visual access to. Not bad, pooch.

There are, we now know, many things that dogs know about us that we ourselves do not. In particular, dogs have been trained to detect various cancers, to notice precipitously low blood-sugar levels or imminent seizures. The very first reported cases of dogs detecting cancers—a border collie–doberman mix that noticed a melanoma and a Labrador that also found a melanoma—happened with untrained dogs. In both cases the dogs were simply persistently sniffing at a part of their person’s body (left armpit, left thigh); months later, their people realized the dogs might be onto something and went to their physicians. (This is not to say that your dog is an early-detection system for such diseases—but if my dogs were suddenly and doggedly keen on sniffing my big toe, I would probably check it out.) Within months of the novel coronavirus’s spread, dogs were being trained to detect the virus in people who themselves did not yet know if they had contracted it.

Would Quid know? We got a chance to find out when first my husband, then I, came down with the virus. There was no sign that Quid sniffed it out—or, at least, we did not notice her trying to tell us. And that’s the thing: As interested as people profess to be in what their dogs know about them, we aren’t often listening to what they might be saying. I look at her scruffy face—her eyebrows expressively raised, her eyes intent, her ears satellite dishes locked on me—and I resolve to listen better.


This article has been excerpted from Alexandra Horowitz’s forthcoming book, The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves.

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