It’s no secret I’m a dog person—I’ve lived with a dog by my side since I was 4 years old. And as any dog caregiver knows, dogs are smart, fun, complex, interesting and generally awesome creatures. Here are 13 of the coolest (and some super surprising!) scientifically backed characteristics about dogs:
1. They can read our emotions—if we’re happy, sad or angry. A recent study found that dogs’ emotional centers in the brain light up in response to happy barks or joyful laughs. Over the years, having had three dogs, I can tell you all three of them were cued into my emotions. And if I needed extra love, they were there, ready to lend a paw, share a hug or rest a chin on my leg.
2. They prefer new toys to old toys. This ties into the fact that dogs are intelligent creatures. And they are interested in new things (called “neophilia”)—new smells, new tastes, new shapes, new textures and the like. That’s why they play with new toys and get bored of old ones: A recent study found that dogs definitely respond more positively to novel toys over familiar ones.
3. For dogs, yawns are contagious. Just like us! So next time you open wide and yawn, take a sneak peek at your dog to see if he copies you. Hilariously, he probably can’t help but yawn, too! This study also found that dogs, like us, can tell the difference between a real yawn and a fake yawn.
4. Oxytocin spikes in both species when dogs and humans share a mutual gaze. This explains why when we meet eyes, I feel like we really are bonding and connected. The scientists even compared it to “human mother-infant relations.”
5. Dogs feel jealousy. Jealousy is a very humanlike emotion—and it amazes me that dogs really can and do feel it. Of course, any dog owner could have told the researchers this (including me), but it’s nice to know it’s backed by science. It’s something to be mindful of if you have multiple pets, a new member of the family, or any other situation that may upset your pup.
6. Dogs know when people are lying. And, as a result, they stop listening to the person they deem untrustworthy. Again, anyone who has a dog knows this one, but the study reveals just how sophisticated dogs are when it comes to social cues.
7. Dogs can “smell” cancer. I know my dog Mystic alerted me to my cancer when she was just three months old! Dogs have such an amazing sense of smell. And after a decade or so of research, the evidence is piling up to suggest that dogs can smell the chemical differences in healthy tissue vs. that which is cancerous. The Penn Vet Working Dog Center works with four trained canines in its nanotechnology research for cancer detection; and in this study, dogs detected prostate cancer correctly 90 percent of the time. Amazing!
8. Dogs align with magnetic fields when going to the bathroom. Hilarious, but true! Since my dog only goes in one tiny place in my yard, I must have lucked out and randomly placed it perfectly according to the earth’s magnetic fields. (They relieve themselves in a “north-south axis,” in case you were wondering.)
9. Dogs are awesome stress-busters in the workplace. Many offices today still don’t allow dogs at work (though they should). Employees lucky enough to have dogs by their side are happier, less stressed out and communicate better with co-workers, which leads to higher productivity.
10. Dogs avoid people who are mean to their people. I love that my dog always has my back! And those with “guard dogs” experience amazing levels of loyalty as well. And this interesting study shows that when dogs observed another human not helping their human caregiver, they then snubbed the “mean” person offering them a treat (and took a treat from a stranger instead).
11. Dogs are calmed by classical music. I love using animal Reiki to calm stressed out and anxious dogs (and all animals, really). But this study shows that they are sensitive to music as well. If your dog gets lonely while you’re at work all day, it wouldn’t hurt to play a little Mozart in your absence. Imagine, too, how playing classical music could improve a chaotic shelter environment.
12. Dogs prefer to earn their treats. Just like how we humans feel good after figuring out a complicated task, dogs, too, get excited when they have the opportunity to solve a challenging problem in exchange for a treat. Smart puppies!
13. Dogs would rather you pet them instead of praise them. Sure, it’s nice of you to say, “Good dog!” But as these scientists discovered, dogs really do love their pets, even more than vocal praise, so if you want to make them feel really special, give them a bunch of cuddles instead.
What are your favorite characteristics about dogs?