Humans and dogs have an unmistakable connection. There is perhaps no greater bond between a human and an animal than the one between a person and his dog. What person isn’t charmed by being greeted at the door by a creature who shows you unconditional love and is just happy you’re back, even if you were gone for only an hour? Dogs are so in tune with you, they know when you talk to them.
Dogs are ready, willing and able to learn to communicate with people. The average dog can learn about 165 words, but the most remarkable dogs to date regarding the scope of their vocabulary are border collies. One famous border collie, Chaser, understands more than 1,000 words. Another border collie, Betsy, knows more than 340 words. To get a dog’s interest, it helps to look at the dog and address him in a high-pitched voice, similar to the way you’d talk to a baby or a toddler.
When it comes to how dogs relate to humans, they are like anthropologists who watch and study human behavior, notes Alexandra Horowitz, psychology professor at Barnard College, writing for PBS. Not only do dogs know when you are talking to them, they can sometimes seem to read your thoughts, too. Say you plan to take your dog on a walk. You haven’t said the magic word “walk” yet, but you are preparing for a walk by putting on your walking shoes. Your dog, observing you putting on those particular shoes, surmises it’s walk time.
Puppies as young as 6 weeks old can understand gestures people make. In an experiment performed by cognitive psychologist Juliane Kaminski and reported by PBS, dogs are compared with chimps to see which one thinks more like a person. When Kaminski pointed to a hidden treat, the dog understood what the pointing meant, but the chimp didn’t. Neither dogs nor chimps make the pointing gesture to indicate where food is. The difference is dogs observe people, and chimps do not. A dog understands that when a person points to an object, she's helping him find something. This is another form of talking that dogs understand by watching people.
Humans have a large white part of the eye -- the sclera -- that makes it easy to tell which direction the eyes are looking. A dog, by observing your eyes, can see whether you're looking at him, which starts the communication process between a person and a dog. Dogs don’t do this with each other because they don’t have a large sclera; they do this only with humans. And although dogs and wolves are 99.8 percent compatible genetically, wolves that were raised with humans as cubs as an experiment reported by PBS did not maintain eye contact with the people who raised them.
- Psychology Today: Is the Human-Canine Bond and Our Sense of Loyalty and Love for Dogs, a Modern Invention?
- PBS: What Do Dogs Think? -- Expert Q&A
- PBS: Dogs Decoded
- Animal Planet: How Many Words Do Dogs Know?
- io9: Can Dogs Tell When We're Talking to them?
- ABC News: World's Smartest Dog? Meet a Border Collie Whose Memory Astounds
- Chris Amaral/Digital Vision/Getty Images