“90 percent of life with a dog consists of chasing each other to see what the other person is eating.” This wisdom, circulating on social networks, may be a bit exaggerated. However, one thing is true: people not only watch their dogs, but they also watch people. “All the time!” says animal psychologist Patricia Loach. And not just when it comes to herding dogs like the Australian Shepherd.
“Even if we think they are just lying silent in the corner and having a good time, they are always focused on us,” says the president of the Professional Association of Animal Behavior Counselors and Trainers. Why do animals do this?
For example, because it is her job. On the other hand, since the 35,000-year history of domestication would have ensured a certain convergence: “Dogs scan the environment extensively and see where the changes are. They want to feel safe, as part of the system, and they have to make sure that they keep their place in it.” Conversely , that is: the less they care, the less they care, the less important is their presence in social contact. They want or should avoid it.
But dogs can’t just watch us. Some dog owners think they can sense what we think. “It’s probably too much to say,” says behavioral biologist Stefanie Riemer of Switzerland’s HundeUni – Science Meets Practice. “But they can perceive how we feel.” Because in research there are certainly indications that dogs are capable of empathy. Just like babies who cry when their mothers blood is drawn.
Evidence of so-called “merciful empathy” has been found in studies of dogs encountering a crying stranger. Instead of responding unobtrusively and turning to their caregiver, many dogs would have cared for a crying test person. “They can perceive emotions and respond to them in a way that respects them,” says Reimer, who led a research group on dog behavior at the University of Bern for several years.
The meaning behind this is clear. Both dogs and humans are highly social creatures. “It’s the advantage of being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes in order to predict how the other person will act.” It is helpful to be able to predict the behavior and note: If the other person is angry and you approach, I will be attacked.
A second feature: When I observe other people and see how they react to something new and potentially dangerous, I don’t have to try it myself. Finally, I also feel when a group member feels fear or pain. “If you cooperate with each other and say, ‘If you help me, I will help you,’ it benefits all the members of the group,” says Reimer.
In the course of domestication history, dogs have specialized in being able to read humans well. “They know what reinforces our nurturing behavior when they react to our feelings,” says the behavioral biologist.
There is no evidence that dogs consciously “play” a fearful behavior such as twitching or tail pinching in order to get more attention. However, some seem to know exactly what to do to be taken care of by their owners. “Some can limp right away because they know they’re going to screw up afterwards,” says Patricia Loach. “Others tilt their heads and look really cute because they get a bonus.”
In any case, they have a whole range of social behavior patterns. It is said that some dogs – especially Dalmatians or Border Collies – are able to laugh. The animal psychologist talks about a Mexican hairless friend’s dog: “He can definitely do that, when he approaches you in a friendly way,” she says.
Smart dogs can imitate
However, it is unclear whether the behavior that is genetically ingrained somewhere in the dog group is not clear, whether it was learned or used consciously. Or whether it’s more reflexive: like a dog, which yawns automatically when its mistress or master yawns at it. Anyway, one thing is clear: “Smart dogs can also imitate us,” says the animal psychologist. “When we scold someone, many participate and bark.”
Not only the external behavior of the pet is synchronized, but also the internal one. This is also over a longer period of time. If people have months of stress over a move or a problem with our boss, this can also be reflected in the dog’s cortisol level. Research indicates that this is independent of the dog’s personality or activity level. “It’s an indication that synchronization is actually happening,” Loesche says.
But our inner life is also automatically reflected. For example, when we meet our neighbors whom we do not like. And when the dog growls at him, even though we seem friendly. “We don’t have our basic emotional situation under control,” the expert says. Before people act, the brain has already decided what to do – and the dog is already aware of these milliseconds. “He is already there before us and we cannot deceive him.”
This is why you don’t have to talk at all so the dog can “understand” you or find out what’s going on with me. or what to do. In training, for example, imitation is used using the “do as I do” method. “Dogs can learn to mimic us well, too, once they realize that is all. Or we interact with them in a special way,” says Patricia Loach. You can achieve great training effects with this.
There is only one downside: dogs are always so straightforward that they also mimic human inconsistencies. Say, “They mirror us even if we don’t want that to be reflected.”