Clever canines: can dogs really tell when you’re being

Name: Canis familiaris (AKA dogs).

Age: As a distinct species, at least 15,000 years old.

Appearance: Varies widely.

Common traits: Excellent sense of smell, exceptional intelligence.

What are you talking about? My dog is a moron. It’s more of an emotional intelligence.

Why would a dog need emotional intelligence? They specialise in understanding humans.

Again, not my dog. He speaks barely a word of English. Maybe not, but most dogs can pick up on human gestures without training. For example, they know what pointing at something means.

Big deal. Apes don’t understand pointing.

I thought apes were smart. They are on many levels, but they just aren’t as attuned to human behaviour as dogs are.

Give me another example. According to a new study from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, dogs can even interpret our intentions.

What does that mean? It means your dog knows the difference between you being unkind, and you being merely hopeless.

How would you go about discovering something like that? Through experimentation. In the study, humans were placed inside transparent boxes, with a small hole through which they could feed the test dogs a bit of food.

I’m more or less with you so far. On some occasions the experimenters pretended to be clumsy and dropped the food inside the transparent box; on others they withheld the food in a teasing fashion. The dogs consistently displayed more patience with clumsiness.

So how do you measure the amount of patience being displayed by a dog? I’m glad you asked: right-tail wagging.

Come again? A tail wagging more to the right is thought to be associated with the left side of the dog’s brain, and with more positive dog emotions.

Seriously? “The rightward tail bias found in the clumsy condition is supportive of the interpretation that dogs recognised the willingness of the clumsy experimenter to transfer the food,” says the study’s authors.

My right, or the dog’s right? That’s not clear. The dogs also spent more time lying down when the experimenters deliberately withheld food, a behaviour associated with being forbidden from eating.

If my dog knows when I’m being a jerk, that has huge implications. Relax – you just have to pretend to be an idiot instead.

Do say: “Silly me! I meant to take you to the park, but somehow we ended up at the vets.”

Don’t say: “Listen to me carefully – go and fetch the key to this transparent box.”

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