The Secret Language of Dogs

There’s an interesting article at the Washington Post on what you can learn from observing dogs at play:

A shaggy brown terrier approaches a large chocolate Labrador in a city park. When the terrier gets close, he adopts a yogalike pose, crouching on his forepaws and hiking his butt into the air. The Lab gives an excited bark, and soon the two dogs are somersaulting and tugging on each other’s ears. Then the terrier takes off and the Lab gives chase, his tail wagging wildly. When the two meet once more, the whole thing begins again.

Watch a couple of dogs play, and you’ll probably see seemingly random gestures, lots of frenetic activity and a whole lot of energy being expended. But decades of research suggest that beneath this apparently frivolous fun lies a hidden language of honesty and deceit, empathy and perhaps even a humanlike morality.

My experience has been that dogs have a very well-developed sense of fairness. That varies somewhat from dog to dog, of course, just as it does from human to human. The most extreme example I’ve ever known is that our first dog, Qila, when offered a treat in exchange for some behavior or other (sit, stay, etc.), would refuse the treat if the behavior wasn’t something he wanted to do.

I don’t think that this

Other studies have revealed that dogs yawn when they see humans yawning and that they nuzzle and lick people who are crying; scientists consider both behaviors displays of empathy, a rarely documented trait in the animal kingdom.

is being properly interpreted. For dogs yawning is a sign of stress. When you yawn, they assume you’re stressed and yawn back to calm you down. However, not only do I think that dogs have empathy, I think their sensory equipment is much better attuned to identifying what’s wrong with you than ours are. We’ve got to ask. Dogs know where your aches and pains are by your scent.

2 comments… add one
  • Ben Wolf

    If dogs have a developed theory of mind, an understanding of fair and unfair and a moral or ethical system (maybe both) then there’s no argument left for not classifying them as non-human persons. They are clearly self-aware and I do not think we can continue to treat them as property. I reject the label of dog owner because no one who spends spends a couple of days with my friend Atka could believe he does not own himself.

  • Cstanley

    Your fairness anecdote definitely does not seem typical.

    I think fairness in the canine world is ordered around the pack hierarchy. I also think there’s a good bit of overlap between pro social behaviors of animals that live in groups with human social behaviors, and these researchers are probably overstating the origin, purpose, and complexity of these behaviors. I love dogs but I think we anthropomorphize too much.

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