03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Our Pets Know That We Don't

We humans are learning that our pets are pretty smart creatures. Not only have they managed to negotiate free room and board for life, they also help people heal and have learned how to communicate with us using our own language.

There's a border collie who, according to one researcher, can recognize 1500 English words. Research has shown that even reasonably bright poodles, retrievers, Labradors and shepherds can learn as many as 250 words, signs and signals. ("Muffin, would you bring me the Arts section of the Sunday Times?")

How many of you have been out for a drive with your pet and noticed that Miss Kitty Cat or Mister Woofie might know when you are getting close to home? There are rational explanations for this, some offered by biologist Rupert Sheldrake. In order for your pet to perk up when your drive is ending the animal is likely recognizing patterns of behavior, sensory stimuli, and other less-obvious cues.

What's most interesting about all this are those less-obvious cues. A research group following the same path as Dr. Sheldrake has made a video showing how pets seem to know when you are about to walk in the door - even if you come at random times of the day. We've all seen this occur and maybe wondered about it. Turns out it happens more than 80 percent of the time. Rover just seems to know when you return.

Can animals be tapping into some kind of deep consciousness? There's some evidence for that.

Helper animals, usually dogs, can be trained to offer comfort to hospitalized humans. These animals can also function as an early warning system for humans who suffer from seizures. The New York Times recently reported that dogs are able to anticipate a human seizure, panic attack or even variations in blood sugar levels. The animals can be trained to alert their owner to what's happening by starting intently or dropping a toy in her lap. If the human has a seizure, a helper dog can be taught to position himself to cushion a fall.

Nobody knows why a dog might be able to anticipate a human's emergency before it happens, but those abilities are being taken seriously by the military. The Times says that the US Army is spending $300,000 to study how psychiatric service dogs might be paired with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army wants to know if dogs placed with veterans could help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Studies have also established that people who own pets live longer. If you want to look at research that is farther out on the edge, know that the metro government of Tokyo has sponsored research to find out if catfish might be able to warn us of earthquakes. Seems that the fish might sense electromagnetic activity and start swimming strangely before the tremors start.

I don't think we'll see a Labradoodle performing surgery anytime soon, but there is ample evidence that our pets have skills far beyond the talent needed to beg for table scraps.