MUTTerings With Nikki Moustaki: What Do Dogs Know?

We know that dogs understand the notion of hierarchy. They understand the concept of danger and survival. But what do they think about us? What about love?

I recently finished reading (OK, listening to on audio) the book, “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein (Harper, 2008). I was captivated from the beginning by the main character and narrator, Enzo, a mixed-breed dog who was born on a farm and then bought by a racecar driver named Denny.

Enzo recounts his life with Denny, the ups and downs, the triumphs and the tragedies, and all the while he does it with such canine intensity and human insight, it’s hard not to want to buy the conceit of the story, hook, line, and squeaker. I found myself pausing at times to reflect on Enzo’s depth of knowledge and spirit, then staring at my dogs as if I’d just seen them for the first time.

I won’t reveal any spoilers here in case you haven’t read it. If you haven’t read it, and you are a dog enthusiast, do not pass go – grab this book now! Not only is it spectacularly written, it gives the reader a strangely believable look into the mind of a dog. He watches TV, he has an undying love for his owner, and he seems to have a good handle on the concept of reincarnation.

I know that this is a work of fiction. But still . . . I couldn’t help but wonder: What do dogs really know?

It has been proven that dogs understand basic cause and effect. They understand routine and ritual. They can learn the names of dozens of items. They understand that certain words are attached to certain behaviors, such as sit and stay. But these are mostly what dogs need to understand to live in harmony with us.

What do they understand for themselves? We know that when they are in a pack, they understand the notion of hierarchy. They understand the concept (and reality) of danger. They know how to find food and how to deal with the weather.

All of it, every last bit, comes down to one word: Survival.

But what The Art of Racing in the Rain made me think about is what dogs understand, if anything, beyond any of those things, beyond how to make it through one more day. Can it be that these canine beings we live with are only out for one thing – their own continued existence? Can it be that their every move is premeditated to keep them breathing, eating, and sleeping on comfy pillows? What about us? What about love?

The results of a new study revealed this week, “The Dog Project,” conducted by the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy, shows that dogs do pay close attention to us. They trained dogs to stay still in MRI machines (quite a feat!) and then had owners gesture to them using signals that they had learned prior to the test. One signal meant that they were going to get a piece of hot dog, and one signal meant that they were not going to get any hot dog. The MRI scans revealed that part of the dogs’ brains activated when they saw the signal for the treat, but did not activate when the “no treat” signal was given.

Here’s a YouTube video about The Dog Project: 

Now, in all seriousness, I could have saved them thousands of dollars, years of work, and lots of hot dogs – of course a dog is going to respond to a signal that says he’s going to get a hot dog! But I’m not a scientist. I just live with dogs. 

What the MRI project truly revealed, at least to me, is that we are infinitely interested in what is going on inside of our dogs’ brains. We live so closely with these animals, but we have yet to unlock their thoughts and mental processes. And this is what’s so beautiful about The Art of Racing in the Rain – it’s not that the author got it right or wrong, it’s that he painted a dog’s mind the way we wish it was.

Dogs are definitely more to us than mere survival. According to Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of The Dog Project, they may have even been crucial to our own evolution.

“To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that dogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 years,” says Berns. “The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too.”

Beautifully put. We have been linked to dogs for millennia; they are part of us, but we still don’t fully understand them.

The Art of Racing in the Rain did make me wonder about dogs’ souls and whether or not they have beliefs. Is there Higher Power for dogs and do they know about it? Do dogs reincarnate, and if they do, do they come back as dogs or humans or butterflies or fish or tin cans? Do they have a concept of death, as we do, but simply aren’t afraid of it because they know something we don’t?

It’s all a big mystery. If just one of them could talk! Maybe the MRI team can figure out a way to ask them the deep questions of the universe and have them light up different parts of their brains for yes or no answers. Would they know more than we do?

I do know this about my dogs – any time, anywhere, in any weather – they will always respond to a hot dog.  

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