Could human and canine communication literally be a meeting of the minds?

I know dogs. After a lifetime of living with them, I understand their language. Different animals have different ways of communicating and I am also fluent in “cat” to a lesser degree. If you put me in front of a horse or an elephant I have no clue what’s on their mind because I haven’t spent time with them. City raccoons have recognizably dog-like personalities and intelligence, and though we share just a pidgin understanding we can deal with each other tolerably well. Lord knows I’ve had my encounters with raccoons in the past. As for dogs – they get me and I get them. So how do dogs and humans communicate, exactly? Is it simply that we’ve had such a long and close association, we’ve learned how to interpret each other’s cues? Maybe, partly. Maybe, more.

“Animals make us Human.”
Temple Grandin

Researchers now believe that wolves domesticated humans at the same time humans domesticated wolves. We have been together for a long time – the earliest fossil of a proto-dog dates back 36,000 years. DNA research shows that modern dogs started diverging from wolves 18,800 to 32,100 years ago. Humans were still hunter-gatherers then, and those semi-wild dogs acted as lookouts and guards and helped find and bring down game. So while humans selected for preferred qualities in the semi-wild dogs they associated with, the semi-wild dogs in turn gave the humans inclined to live with them a better chance to survive and reproduce. Inadvertently, both humans and dogs co-evolved with traits that enable us to function very well together. So well, in fact, it’s not a coincidence that humans settled down as farmers at the same time dogs completed their domestication process. When it came to herding and protecting livestock, domesticated dogs succeeded over semi-wild ones for obvious reasons. And it was win-win: Farming was a much easier life for both man and dog.

I sometimes think dogs understand us better than we understand them. But the remarkable thing is that [dogs and humans] do understand each other to such a degree.
– Mark Derr

The evidence that dogs evolved to co-exist with humans is compelling. For example, when we look or point at something, dogs understand our meaning immediately; their attention follows the direction of our eyes or hand. Chimpanzees, even with their greater brainpower, can’t do that. Wolves are very intelligent, but they can’t do it either. Dogs are unique in the animal kingdom for their ability to perceive and interpret human facial expressions and body language. We in turn can understand our dogs, as long as we don’t fall into the cognition trap of reading our own thoughts and reactions into their behaviour. So no, the dog doesn’t feel guilty when you scold him. He doesn’t know why it’s not ok to gnaw on your shoes – they have an appealing odour of “you”; chewing relieves anxiety and boredom; and if he’s young it’s the only way he knows how to respond to the pain of teething. Your dog understands only that you’re angry with him and that you’re a bit scary right now, so he postures in a way that he believes will placate you. Having said that, I believe that humans have evolved with a latent ability to tap into an unexplored technique that I think dogs use to communicate.

I’m a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.
Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin, a specialist in animal behaviour who has autism and is co-author of the book, Animals in Translation, believes that autistic people and animals “see, feel and think in remarkably similar ways”. Autistic humans process brain input visually and “think in pictures”, as do animals; neither of them convert thoughts and feelings into words. Many years ago I had an experience that leads me believe that animals don’t just think this way, they communicate this way as well.

Jack and Jake
Jack Kwinter and Jake

My late border collie, Jake, is responsible for this line of thinking. He understood a remarkable amount of English and to a certain extent could generalize with this knowledge. For example, he was able to learn that people and objects have names. I’m not exaggerating when I say that once he mastered this concept, all it took was a polite introduction; I would look at Jake, point toward the newcomer, and say, “this is Jack”. My dog and I understood each other very well, but in the clatter and distraction of everyday life I just assumed it was because we had learned each other’s cues. Jake had a great sense of humour and a wonderful doggy smile (as did Jack, may they both rest in peace).

One night, when Jake was around 8 years old, I came out of a deep sleep with a gasp and a tremendous sense of urgency. An image of Jake in distress had penetrated my sleep together with the sure knowledge that he had to get outside – fast. I looked toward the doorway and saw him standing in the hall, staring at me – utterly still and silent. And I mean really staring at me, with deep intensity. I remember that his eyes were big and round and I felt him urge me to “hurry!”. I didn’t pause to evaluate the situation; I jumped out of bed and followed at a run as he turned and bolted for the back door. I opened it and he barely made it outside before his bowels let loose. It was only then that I stopped to wonder what had just happened.

Over the years I have frequently pondered that night to try and make sense of it. My conclusion is that somehow Jake communicated his emergency to me in a way that was visual, emotional, and powerful enough to penetrate my subconscious and disturb my sleep. I hesitate to say the word, but… telepathic. I wonder if that’s the way he always communicated with me and I just didn’t pick up on the true nature of the information exchange. It also makes me wonder if  this form of “brain-to-brain” communication is common among animals.

Turbo – January 2010

Jake passed away almost 8 years ago, and I now share my life with Turbo, a mutt rescued from extermination in Pamplona, Spain. She is an adorable, bright and excitable little female spaniel mix whose heritage is best described as “street beast”. She may have left the streets but the streets will never leave her; Turbo is a wanderer, an excellent and efficient hunter, pushy, and an expert panhandler. She was partly feral when I got her, so forget any “meeting of the minds”; it’s taken more than six years to convince each other that we both actually have brains. I’m not the kind of person to get anthropomorphic about dogs; Turbo is not my “fur baby”, nor was Jake. Dogs certainly have emotional lives and personalities, but they experience and respond to the world differently than humans do. I won’t disregard their canine natures by turning them into four-legged surrogate children. Having said that, I don’t judge people who do.

…as in parent-child bonding, dogs use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which to interact with the world around them.

The relationship between dogs and humans has always been mutualistic, and “fur baby” is just another job that dogs perform and another adaptation that happens to mesh with our lives of modern solitude. I imagine that back in the dawn of our association, more than one childless prehistoric cavewoman held a puppy in her arms and felt a wave of maternal emotion. It would have served the puppy’s survival and well-being very well to respond with the non-verbal query, “are you my mother?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s how we humans and wolves began our long and closely connected evolutionary journey together in the first place.

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