How do our dogs see us?

By Honor Coulter | behaviour, social

When we look at our dog’s eyes gazing in our direction, we might wonder what they are thinking about us. Why do they listen to us sometimes, and not others? Why might they want to cuddle up to us when we are feeling sad, or want to play with us and share our homes?

 Of course, we can’t ask them, but we can look at how dogs behave around humans. Rather than the old-style ‘pack leader’ theory, studies show that dogs form social groups, rather like our human families. We also have evidence that dogs have lived with and evolved alongside humans for many thousands of years. Considering this, it is hardly surprising that they fit into our families so well.

 Dogs are expert at reading human emotions by examining our faces; they have been shown to do this even when the faces are upside down! Next time your dog is inviting you for a tummy rub and peering at you from their chosen topsy-turvy position, they are probably checking how you feel about their gentle request.

 In human families, dogs adapt to our circumstances. This means that whether you are a single owner, living alone, to a huge family of all ages, your dog will become used to your social set-up. What it might also mean is that your dog is not used to other family situations. This can cause problems, for example if your dog is not familiar with children, they may become perturbed at the noise and activity that youngsters invariably bring.

 Our dogs value us more than we realise. To them, we are providers of shelter, food and water, companionship, fun, freedom and of course, exercise. We already control all these resources without thinking what they mean to the dog. It’s important because we can influence our dogs’ behaviour by using these resources. For example, we use food or toys as training aids because our dogs learn that we will offer them if they do the things we ask. Sometimes this ‘value’ becomes extreme, as our dogs become very attached to us and cannot cope well when we leave them at home. Understandable, since our dogs don’t know about going to the supermarket or needing to go to work. Care must be taken to not leave our dogs for too long, since without our regular presence their lives can become stressful.

 Ideally, we need our dogs to view us as generous, kind friends and teachers. We must help them socialise and adapt to our human world, which can look noisy and unpredictable at times. Teaching our dogs by attending regular, positive reward-based training classes helps them understand boundaries and to ‘ask’ us before they do things. Even asking for a simple ‘sit’ before allowing your dog to greet you means he will listen to your requests and behave in a way you would like, because he knows that is the way to get what he wants, too.