In the taxonomy of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), there are canines of all shapes and sizes, but rest assured, they are all good. A real pup enthusiast knows that within this framework, there are even more intricate strata: there are doggos, puppers, pupperinos, shoobs, shibes, shooberinos, and longboys, for example. While we know all dogs are good boys (and girls), the question remains—do dogs know?
For this week’s Giz Asks, Gizmodo spoke to animal behavior experts and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to studying dogs. Apparently, dogs know when they’re making their owners happy, but have their own moral code when it comes to defining “goodness.”
Dog behaviorist and star of “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” (2004-2012), and “Dog Nation”
We should be able to, and we can if we’re paying attention. A wagging tail is only one sign, although a wag doesn’t always necessarily indicate a happy dog. There are cases where a tail wag can be a warning, especially if it’s slow and deliberate, and mainly to the left instead of the right.
The thing to watch for in canine body language when gauging happiness is a lack of tension. Is the dog’s mouth slightly open without panting? Are her ears up and her tail level? Is she standing normally and not crouched down or hyper-alert? Are her eyes open normally instead of squinted or so wide you can see the whites?
Another big sign of happiness in a dog is calmness. If your dog is spinning in circles or jumping up and down, those are not signs of happiness — they’re signs of over-excitement. Imagine a human pacing back and forth nervously. That’s what a dog is doing when it jumps or spins. But if he’s sitting quietly and looking to you, then he’s happy.
In a sense: They know when you’re happy with them, and they can make a connection between behavior that they do and a positive reaction on your part. Of course, dogs don’t really have a definition of “good.” Since they live in the moment, it’s more a matter of them thinking — but not really in words — “Is nothing bad happening to me right now?” That’s their only real way of gauging whether they’re behaving in the “right” way.
This is also why the timing of a correction is so important. You have to make sure that it happens the instant a dog has decided to engage in a behavior you don’t want. If your dog peed on the rug at two o’clock and you start yelling at her for it at three o’clock, she’s never going to connect one with the other. Instead, she’ll think you’re punishing her for whatever she was doing when you started yelling.
Cobb is a professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester. He’s co-authored a study on dogs
It’s bit complicated as it revolves around what you mean by “know.” Can dogs detect if you are happy/sad? Yes—you sound and behave differently. Do they know what that means? There’s evidence, so probably “no.” You can explain their behavior by reinforcement. Beware human interpretation—see, for example, the guilty dog study.
Executive Director, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Also a beagle owner
There’s two things: the first is that I don’t know how we’re operationalizing “good.” This could mean “successful” from the point of view of the dog. For example, I have this beagle, who is quite happy with herself when she chewed a guitar tuner—it was awesome! So my definition of “bad” and her definition of “good” are different.
Certainly there’s a loyalty, and certainly there’s a reinforcement history, which is where all of this goes: a reinforcement history between that animal and that human, which made the bond very strong.
When we talk about loyalty, love and all these things, I personally do think they exist. I’ve seen vast differences in how my dog treats one person versus another person in the family. I can’t say exactly how we measure [a dog’s] love, but I can say one of the ways we can look at the relationship between a dog and a human is the reinforcement history. That could be through traditional training, it could be rewarding the dog with a cookie for sitting. But it could also be the fact that we like to cuddle at night—that’s reinforcing for both of us.
Director of Animal Behavior at the Humane Society of Indianapolis
People can do some things involving interactive training. The reinforcers for each dog would be different, though. For one dog, food might make them really excited and happy. For another dog, the [reinforcer] could be their favorite ball or toy. It could be as simple as the dog going for a walk with their human. Most dogs are going to enjoy a cuddle on the couch or a treat thrown out to them.
Unlike humans, dogs can’t speak English, so they tell us things through their body language. They can tell us when they’re happy or scared—we’ll know if we see them wagging their tail really big or wiggling.
They certainly have little grins about them, but I don’t know if it’s the same thing as what we see in humans. But they certainly look like it to us.
Do you have a question for Giz Asks? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.