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?
A new job, a new baby, a new pet, the loss of a pet, a new house—sometimes we forget that the major life events that stress us out can stress out our animals as well. Suddenly the routines your animals have been used to their entire lives have been turned upside down. You may be working longer hours or having to give all of your attention to a new member of the family. Your animal is going to notice. Whatever the case, these changes may be seriously impacting the emotional life of your cat or dog. And because some cats and dogs are less resilient to life changes than others, it’s important to consider not just how this change is affecting your animal, but also how you can ward off (and begin to heal) a serious condition like depression.
What does depression in animals look like, and how can we help them? Every creature is different, but here are some common warning signs—along with a few tips on how you can help:
Signs of Depression in Animals
1. Losing interest in food—or eating way too much.
2. Lack of enthusiasm. Did your dog used to love going for walks, but now he doesn’t even react when you pick up the leash? Did your cat used to greet you when you got home from work, but now you can’t find her anywhere?
3. Sleeping more than usual or acting lethargic.
4. Obsessive behaviors. Does your dog lick or bite his feet excessively? Does your cat groom herself so much she’s getting a bald spot? On the flip side, if your cat stops grooming altogether, that’s another sign she may be depressed.
5. Biting or other aggressive behaviors. Aggression is a clear sign your animal is not in balance with his or her emotions. If your animal used to be calm and peaceful but has now taken to nipping you or others, he or she may be depressed.
How to Help
1. Visit the vet. First things first: You need to rule out any physical problems that may be causing any of the above behavior changes. If depression is suspected following a full medical workup, your vet can offer some helpful treatment options.
2. Offer extra attention and cuddles. Like us, animals crave human contact and need to feel that they’re loved. Though your schedule may be packed already, you’ll need to fit at least 30 minutes of one-on-one time with your animal every day doing something special. Take your dog for a walk, throw the ball in the park and reward him with treats—whatever he loves best. Hold your cat and give her extra cuddles and pets. Cats also love playing hunting games that challenge their minds and bodies, so make sure to set aside some “play time” with them every day. Most cats and dogs also love being groomed, so brush their fur every day if you can. This kind of closeness can help to support your animal when they are hurting.
3. Share Reiki. Reiki is a wonderful addition to any treatment program because it helps your animal become calm and relaxed (and your animal will love spending this time with you!). If you suspect your animal is depressed, try my Peace Affirmation (from my book Reiki for Dogs), which can help you support your animal on his or her healing journey:
Close your eyes and sit comfortably with the word “peace” inside your heart and body for several minutes. Feel the meaning and truth of that word/emotion permeate your whole being. Imagine what it would look like if your animal were perfectly peaceful and calm. Hold that vision, as if it is already achieved, within your heart and mind for several minutes. When you are ready, offer the possibility of peace as a gentle, loving bridge of light, from your heart to the heart of your animal. Include within the light all the emotions that go with the word. Continue holding that affirmation and bridge of light for an additional several minutes.
4. Curb their loneliness. It could be as simple as leaving the radio on when you’re gone all day, or installing a perch so they can watch the wildlife out the window when you’re at work. Doggie day camps and pet-sitters can also offer attention when you’re not there. If your animal is sad because his best friend recently passed, bringing a new playmate into the house could be just the thing to cheer them up. Of course, you need to pick the right dog or cat—with just the right temperament to balance your animal. How do you ensure that? Make sure to include your animal in the selection process and follow these tips for new cats and dogs.
5. Consider an anti-depressant. If weeks or months have passed and you’ve tried everything, and your animal just isn’t snapping out of it, talk with your vet about whether or not a medication might be in order. Just like us humans, sometimes dogs and cats need and respond really well to anti-depressant treatments, especially when nothing else seems to be working.
Has your animal ever been depressed? What did you do to help them?
My life’s work literally is animal Reiki—coaching animal lovers worldwide on their journey toward peace and wellness. But Reiki is not the only natural treatment out there for our beloved animals. In fact, Reiki is a great complementary therapy to not only Western veterinary medicine, but also a whole host of holistic and natural options, including the three listed below. Tell me, have you given any of these a try?
Acupuncture: My last dog, Dakota, benefited greatly from acupuncture treatments, which work by restoring balance. When he was in hospice, acupuncture allowed him to use his back legs to walk a bit longer than would have otherwise been possible. And amazingly, animals don’t seem to mind getting stuck by dozens of needles. They just “go to sleep,” says veterinarian Nicole Kayser in this informative article from Ithaca.com. To find a holistic vet near you who offers acupuncture or other healing modality, try this helpful search function from the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.
Aromatherapy: Animals have a keen sense of smell, and humans who swear by aromatherapy for their dog or horse say it does wonders for stress, their immune system, motion sickness, skin rashes, hyperactivity and more. But essential oils should be used cautiously, so always work in tandem with your vet and also read up on the subject. The comprehensive guide Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals by Kristen Lee Bell and this article in Huffington Post are good places to start.
Natural and herbal remedies: Fleas, stress, dry skin, tummy troubles, hairballs and more can often be handled by homemade or natural remedies. This article runs down 21 surprisingly easy natural and herbal remedies for common maladies; and, of course, Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats should reside on every animal lover’s bookshelf.
What are your favorite natural remedies?