How Dogs Read Our Minds

I’m currently in northernmost Quebec, in the Inuit village of Puvirnituq. The seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice, the biting subzero temperatures and the howling wind, powerfully drive home the resourcefulness of the Inuit, who for over a thousand years thrived in this unforgiving landscape with only stone-age technology. But what powerful technology it was: fire, seal-skin anoraks, snow-carving knives for making igloos, and above all, dogs. Yesterday afternoon I went for a dog-sled ride with expert musher Jean-Marie Novalinga, whose team pulled us across a flat, wind-scoured landscape. Unlike dog teams in Alaska, those in this part of the Arctic are harnessed in a loose fan formation, as if one were being pulled by a feral pack of dogs. One there in the empty expanse, man and dog working together, the partnership feels like a very primal relationship indeed.

It is, at heart, both a practical relationship and a deeply emotional one. “You have to feel connection to your dogs,” Novalinga said. “It’s the only way to work together.”

Anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows what he means by connection. Humans and dogs have a way of intuiting one another’s emotions – of feeling like we know what the other is feeling — that is unique among all the species on earth. But how they can achieve it is something of a biological puzzle. After all, dogs and humans are not particularly closely related species. Our last common ancestor lived far back during the age of dinosaurs. Dogs are more closely related to whales than they are to us. We are more closely related to mice than to dogs. So why should we feel such a powerful and unique bond?

Part of the answer is what evolutionary biologists call convergent evolution. Even though our brains are quite different, they have evolved to fulfill a very similar ecological niche. Dogs and humans are both pack predators, which team up to hunt much larger prey. We need to cooperate with others in our group, and it order to do that, we need to communicate. We also need to form a flexible hierarchy. Humans evolved in tropical Africa, while dogs descended from gray wolves that lived in temperate Eurasia. About 50,000 years ago, when our ancestors left Africa and came across the ancestors of the dog, they were able to recognize in one another a similar capacity for organization and communication. Across tens of millions of years of genetic divergence, we found we had developed similar tools for socialization.

Another reason that we feel so adept at intuiting one another’s emotions is that – okay, die-hard dog lovers had better stop reading now. Because recent research suggests that our profound empathic connection with dogs is to a certain extent a matter of delusion. What we see in dogs eyes is only a projection of what we want to see, at least part of the time.

Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant professor at Barnard College, wanted to find out what the true meaning was behind the guilty look that dogs give their owners when they’re caught in the act of doing something bad. She asked owners to leave their dogs in a room after instructing them not to eat a treat left behind within the dogs’ reach. When the owners subsequently came back in the room, they were either told that the dog had taken the treat, or had managed to behave as instructed. The experiment’s twist was that what the owners were told was in many cases wrong. Many of the dogs who were subsequently scolded for treat-stealing were in fact innocent.

What Horowitz discovered was that dog’s guilty expressions had nothing to do whether they had behaved themselves or not. They were merely responding to the scolding that their owners were giving them. In fact, the innocent dogs wore even more pronounced guilty expressions that those who had eaten the treat.

The moral of the story, then, is that we’re not as good at reading the emotions of our canine companions as we would like to believe. Like many long-enduring relationships, it benefits from our willingness to take our partner’s sincerity at face value.