Dogs are full of mysteries and secrets. They have a long lost history that they never tell to humans. They have a mysterious way of thinking that only other dogs understand. They have a secret language that they use when they are talking to dogs and people (although humans may not understand what they are trying to say). Dogs have a special way of knowing the world because their eyes, ears and nose give them a different picture of the world. Many of their mysteries are hidden in their genes and scientists are just starting to learn about these. There are so many questions that most of us would like to ask our dogs about their behaviors, their origins, and their nature. Unfortunately dogs tend to keep their secrets and never answer our queries directly or in simple language.
As a psychologist and behaviorist I have been studying and doing research on the behavior of dogs for nearly half a century. I have published a dozen books and several hundred articles on dogs, as well as having a television show that was broadcast nationally in Canada for more than a decade. Since people know that I have done such extensive work with dogs, they are always asking me questions about particular quirks in their dog's behaviors. It seems to me that the same set of questions are always cropping up, as though they make up the core of information that we would like to know about our favorite pets, and perhaps what are dogs would like us to know about them if they were more conversational. For many of those answers you might want to look at my book Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know [W.W. Norton, $23.95] however for now, let's see if I can answer a few of those frequent queries.
Some dogs look so much like wolves that it is hard for anyone, except a trained scientist, to tell them apart. However some dogs (like dachshunds and Saint Bernards) look nothing at all like a wolf. How do scientists decide whether dogs started out as wolves? One way is to try to cross breed the species by mating a wolf to a dog. If that mating produces live puppies that are fertile and can have pups, then that means that the wolf and dog are the same species. It turns out that dogs can have puppies, not only with wolves, but also with jackals, coyotes, dingoes, African wild dogs, and even some kinds of foxes. Although genetic research says that the first species that humans domesticated was the wolf, the guess is that dogs are mixture of all of these different wild canines, which probably explains the existence of so many different looking dogs in the world.
Humans have created particular breeds of dogs to run fast. The fastest of these is the greyhound which can run at speeds in excess of 40 miles per hour. Everyone has heard that the cheetah is the fastest animal in the world since it can run around 65 mph--however this is only for short distances in runs that may last a few seconds. Horses can maintain their top speed for somewhat longer, but still limited, distances. Thus when Secretariat set the Kentucky Derby speed record in 1973 he ran it at 38 mph over a distance 1.5 miles. Meanwhile, greyhounds can run at their top speed for distances as great as 7 miles. This means that while the cheetah is faster in short sprints, in any long race the greyhound will leave that fast cat (and Secretariat) way behind--panting in the dust. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bagsgroove/6847448084/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by bagsgroove</em></a>
Dogs grow more quickly than people and they don't live as long. A fun thing to do is to try to translate dog years into people years. You may have heard that one year in a dog's life is equal to 7 years in a person's life. That's not really true. In their first year puppies grow and change very quickly. On his first birthday, your dog has all of the physical abilities that a person who is 16 years old will have. When he is two years old your dog is a lot like a 24-year-old human. After that, we can say that each year adds around 5 human years, at least in the way your dog's body is changing. So if you want to calculate your dog's age it works like this. Suppose that your dog is 12 years old. You would start with 24 years for his first two years, then add 5 years each for his next 10 years. This would give him a total of 24 plus 50, which is 74 years in human life. Right now 74 years is the average length of life for people, and 12 years is the average life span for dogs. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/74620329@N03/6724682087/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by 0Â¢</em></a>
You may have heard that dogs are colorblind, but if you think that that means that they only see the world in black and white (like an old movie) you are wrong. Dogs can see colors, but not as well as people. This is because there are short fat cells in the eye (called cones) that see color, and dogs have many fewer of these than people do. This makes dogs a bit colorblind in the sense that although dogs can tell the difference between blues and yellows pretty well, they have difficulty seeing the difference between reds and greens. The interesting thing is that the most popular color for dog toys is red. That is why your version of Lassie may run right past the new toy you threw, since to her it is the same color as the grass it landed on. Remember dogs don't buy toys, people do--and people can see and are attracted to red. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mayesstudios/4552654473/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by Mayes Studios</em></a>
Dogs inherited their eyes from wolves and other hunters. A hunter really doesn't have to have to see small things, like letters printed on a page, but he has to see anything that moves. After all, moving things are likely to be things that he can chase and eat. That's why, even though dogs can't see small things, or things that aren't moving, as well as humans can, they are able to see things that move much better than we can. Scientists have found that when a dog's owner is standing around 300 yards away, but isn't moving, he is almost invisible to the dog. On the other hand, if a person is standing a mile away and waving his arms, the dog can easily see and recognize him! <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/zanotti/288646128/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by Reportergimmi</em></a>
It bothers people when their dog stops to roll in some awful smelling mess, or even the droppings from another animal. Scientists think that this is an instinct left over from the wild hunters that dogs came from. (An instinct is something animals know how to do without having to learn it.) The smell was camouflage to hide the dog's own smell. He could then sneak up on other animals since now he smelled like manure instead of like a hunter. Of course it is possible that the dog thinks that this smelly stuff is just a new kind of high fashion perfume... <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/free-stock/7002030377/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by Public Domain Photos</em></a>
Because the dog's brain is much like our own it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that dogs dream much the way that you do. You can tell when your dog is dreaming by watching him. When your dog first falls into a deep sleep you can see that he is breathing in a very regular way, with his chest rising and falling with a kind of a slow rhythm. When a dream starts your dog's breathing changes. The breaths now aren't as deep and they don't follow a regular rhythm. You may see odd muscle twitches and the dog may make some sounds. Now look closely at his eyes and you should see them moving behind his closed lids. His eyes are moving because your dog is actually looking at his dream images as if they were real things in the world. All dogs don't dream the same amount. It is an odd fact that small dogs have more dreams than big dogs. A dog as small as a toy poodle may dream once every ten minutes while a dog as large as a Mastiff or a Great Dane may have around an hour between each dream. The difference is that the big dog's dreams are longer. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/51141730@N07/5268601286/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by LisaAuch</em></a>
Dogs think, learn, solve problems and have feelings. If you want to compare their thinking to people, the average dog is about as smart as a two year old human child. This means that dogs can learn to understand around 165 human words (including signals and hand movements that mean the same things as words). The "super dogs" (the ones in the top 20 percent of canine intelligence) are as smart as a human between two and a half and three years of age, which means that they can learn more than 250 words. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/gareth1953/5499994653/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by gareth1953 Alive and Well and Much Better</a>
If you consider how well dogs learn and perform actions that a human teaches them (the equivalent of school learning in humans) we find large breed differences. One study contacted all of the dog obedience judges in the U.S. and Canada combined, since their job is to look at and "grade" how well a dog is performing learned tasks. Based on their ratings the brightest of all of the dog breeds is the Border Collie, followed by the Poodle, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Shetland Sheep dog and Labrador Retriever. Having a smart dog means that the dog can learn anything you want to teach him--however it also means that he can learn what he can get away with more easily as well. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mauricekoop/2395869711/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by Maurice Coop</em></a>
It is difficult to measure a cat's intelligence in the same way that we do a dog's because cats do not train easily. Based on their behaviors cats are roughly as bright as a human child of about 18 months of age as compared to the two to two and half year old abilities of the dog. Another way to make the estimate is to look at the size of an animal's brain and compare it to its body size. When we do this dogs are considerably smarter than cats (almost as smart as some monkeys). I suppose that is why we never have encountered a seeing-eye cat, a police cat, or a search and rescue cat. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetjewels/2125669499/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by sweethappychick1985</em></a>