When the dog owner yawns, her animal also opens its mouth wide. And when master scolds loudly, his dog barks too. Why do the four-legged friends do this? In order to keep their place in the human environment, says an animal psychologist.
"90 percent of life with a dog consists of chasing each other to see what the other is eating." It may be that this wisdom circulating on social networks is a bit exaggerated. But one thing is true: not only do we watch our dogs, but they also watch us.
"All the time!" says animal psychologist Patricia Loesche. And not only when it comes to herding dogs like your Australian Shepherd. "Even if we think they're just lying in the corner and having a good time, they always have us in focus," says the chairwoman of the professional association of animal behavior consultants and trainers. Why are they doing this? For one, because it's her job.
On the other hand, because 35,000 years of domestication history would have ensured a certain affinity: "Dogs scan the environment particularly intensively and look where changes are. They want to feel safe, as part of the system, and have to see that they have their place in it to keep." Conversely, this means: The less they notice, the less attentive they are, the less importance they have in the community. They want or have to avoid that.
But dogs can not only observe us. Some dog owners even think they can feel what we think. "That might be saying a bit too much," says behavioral biologist Stefanie Riemer from the Swiss "Dog University - Science Meets Practice". "But they can perceive what we feel." Because in research there are definitely indications that dogs are capable of empathy. Just like little children who cry when their mother's blood is drawn.
Evidence of so-called "compassionate empathy" could be found in studies in which dogs were confronted with a stranger who was crying. Instead of reacting uncertainly and turning to their own caregiver, many dogs would actually have taken care of the crying test person. "They can perceive emotions and react to them in a way that is caring," says Riemer, who led a research group on dog behavior at the University of Bern for several years.
The meaning behind it is clear. Both dogs and humans are very social creatures. "It's an advantage to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others in order to predict how the other person will act." It helps to be able to predict behavior and to notice: If the other person is angry and I get closer, I will be attacked.
A second advantage: when I observe others and see how they react to something new that could be dangerous, I don't have to experience it myself. And finally, I also feel when another group member is afraid or in pain. "If you cooperate with each other and say, 'If you help me, I'll help you', this benefits all group members," says Riemer.
In the course of domestication history, dogs would have specialized in being able to read us humans well. "And they know what reinforces our caring behavior towards them when they react to our emotions," says the behavioral biologist.
There is no evidence that dogs consciously "play" fearful behavior such as trembling or a pinched tail in order to get more attention. However, some seem to know exactly what to do to be cared for by their owners. "Some can limp right away because they have learned that they will then be spoiled," says Patricia Loesche. "Others tilt their heads and look very cute because they get a treat."
In any case, they have a whole range of social behavior patterns. Some dogs - especially Dalmatians or Border Collies - are even said to be able to laugh. The animal psychologist talks about a friend's Mexican hairless dog: "He can definitely do that, whenever he approaches you in a friendly manner," she says.
However, it is unclear whether a behavior comes to light that is genetically anchored somewhere in the dog population, whether it has been learned or whether it is used consciously. Or whether it is more of a reflex: like the dog, which automatically yawns when it is yawned at by its mistress or master. In any case, one thing is clear: "Dogs that are smart can also imitate us," says the animal psychologist. "When we scold someone, many join in and bark."
Not only external behavior is synchronized by our four-legged friends, but also internal. And that too over a longer period of time. If we have months of stress due to a move or trouble with our boss, this can also be reflected in the dog's cortisol level. Research suggests that this is independent of the dog's personality or activity level. "It is an indication that synchronization is actually taking place," says Loesche.
But our inner life is also reflected spontaneously. For example, when we meet our neighbors whom we don't like. And when the dog growls at him, even though we seem friendly ourselves. "We don't have our basic emotional attitude under control," says the expert. Before we act, our brain has already decided what we are going to do - and the dog is already aware of these milliseconds. "He's already there before us and we can't fool him."
That's why you don't have to speak at all for the dog to "understand" you or know what's going on with me. Or what to do. In training, for example, imitation is used using the "Do as I do" method. "Dogs can very well learn to imitate us once they understand that that's what it's all about. Or that we react to it in a special way," reports Patricia Loesche. You can achieve great training effects with this.
There is only one downside: dogs are always so straightforward that they imitate our inconsistency as well. Say: "They reflect us even if we don't want to be reflected."