We’ve all heard anecdotes about dogs who sensed danger before their person did. And we all know someone who would swear by the idea that if their dog doesn’t like you, then they shouldn’t either. But is it true? Can dogs tell if someone has good intentions or bad? And if so, then how do they do it?
It turns out, it’s true, according to science. To a point. And even then, every dog may not choose to act on their findings. Or they may act in a way that we don’t expect.
A recent study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found that dogs not only observe human behavior but also act on their observations. Specifically, when they observed someone not helping their owners, the dogs reacted badly to that person. The study also shows that dogs observe their owners, and judge their owners as well.
In the study, the dogs’ owners pretended to struggle with opening a jar. With one control group, researchers helped the owner to open the jar. For the other group, researchers just stood there without helping. At the end of the task, the researchers offered the dogs a treat. The dogs in the first control group, where the researchers were helpful, accepted the treat. In the second control group, where the researchers were deliberately unhelpful, the dogs issued the cut direct.
What Does It Mean?
Dogs watch and judge. This might explain why my dog always takes my son’s side when my son and I play-fight. I’m bigger, and I usually start it. Never mind that I’m the one who walks the dog, feeds him, and keeps the treats coming. If I’m acting like a big jerk, my dog’s going to call me on it.
It would also explain one of the most striking cases of a discerning dog, which happened in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2014. Pitbull owner Gabriel Garcia kidnapped a woman, held her in his home, assaulted her, and attempted to rape her. When she wrestled away from him and tried to call 911, he took away her phone, pushed her down the stairs, and ordered his dog to bite her.
The pittie inexplicably turned on his owner and bit Garcia instead, allowing the woman to get away. It’s now scientifically proven fact that dogs aren’t slavish unconditional love machines. They watch, they judge, and they act on their judgments.
But Do They See Things We Don’t?
According to science, yes. But how?
The first way is through smell. A dog’s sense of smell is legendary. It’s better than ours, but how much better? Well, depending on the breed, between 100 and 1000 times better. Dogs can sniff out chemicals that a person emits through his or her skin, which reveals emotional states like anxiety, fear, and anger. Likewise, they can smell the chemicals that indicate a relaxed, peaceful, or happy state.
Dogs can also sense other indicators of agitation, like sweating, increased heart rate, and blood flow. A dog may interpret this agitation as aggression, and act on it. If the dog’s interpretation is correct, and the agitated person was about to act aggressively, then they dog effectively “saw” a potential attack before it happened. Of course, this can also cause a false alarm, when a dog senses agitation in a person who is simply afraid of dogs.
Should You Trust Your Dog’s Judgment?
All signs point to yes. That doesn’t mean that if your dog gives someone the stink-eye, you should call the cops. But do pay attention to their reactions to people. Because our dogs are watching — us, as well as everyone else around them. And they’re keeping tabs. And when the chips are down, you can count on a dog to do the right thing, regardless of what their owner might think about it.