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Food For Thought

A recent study seems to provide evidence that what most pet owners have long suspected may be true. Your dog can read your mind. By watching the right side of your face (where your emotions are reflected) and gazing into your eyes, canines evidently are able to discern what you are thinking. Several examples of such talent were cited to support this claim, though one, at least, points to a more mystical explanation.
The report included the example of one dog that would arise and go to wait by the door several minutes after his owner left his place of work over a mile away. I don’t see how that has anything to do with looking into eyes and observing facial expressions. I have owned several dogs who seemed to have this talent. I have come to believe it can be explained by a dog’s keen hearing and that they recognize the sound of a car’s engine, or perhaps any audible characteristics of a person’s diving habits. I might also attribute it to simple observation of habitual behavior on the part of their masters and a dog’s built-in awareness of time, except that I have noticed my dogs anticipating those arrivals at varied and unpredictable times of day and night. And the dogs certainly couldn’t have gotten clues from me, as I was often asleep or in another room at the time they were alerted.
I do believe dogs can sense what you are about to do, though again I’m not sure it has to do with eyes and facial expression. At a time when I had two dogs in the house, I realized that they seemed to know when I was about to let them out one last time before I headed off to bed. I’d be watching the late news, or reading, or working in my study and thinking it was time to call it a day. Even before I made a move to turn off the TV, close my book, or wind up whatever project I was working on, they would both get up, stretch, yawn, and make their way to the door, waiting to be let out. They might not have been in the same room with me, and they might have been sound asleep, or watching the television screen rather than my face. So how could they be reading my mind?
I suppose it could be partly routine. Dogs are observant and become familiar with the things we do, the way we do them, the times we do them, and even subtle body language of which we ourselves are often unaware. It may be something as simple as taking a deep breath as you decide to put down your book, moving your feet slightly in preparation for getting out of your chair, turning your head to look at your watch or the clock. Or it could be your dog’s built in awareness of time, or something as basic as a call of nature. Anyone who had housebroken a puppy knows that dogs can be trained to wait out nature’s urges and they come to expect to be put outdoors at certain times.
I’ve noticed that dogs have the ability to put two and two together, so to speak. Not that they’re adept at arithmetic, but that they recognize the relationship between certain behaviors and learn that one thing usually leads to another expected occurrence. Pavlov’s conditioned reflex– nothing more. Early on, our last puppy learned that my husband always wore a cap when he went outdoors. Since he seldom let her out except when he was going out too, she connected the cap with getting to go outdoors with him. Being a bossy golden retriever, she figured that, if she brought him his cap, he would take her out for a walk or a game of fetch. During his last couple of years, hiking and playing ball were eliminated, but he still would take her out on our deck where they both ended up napping. I still don’t know if she thought the cap had some sort of power to make him go outside, or if she thought she had him trained to take her out when she gave him his cap.
I suspect she thought she had control over both of us. Being a slow starter and not having had enough sleep since 1957, when my first child was born, I was difficult to drag out of bed most mornings. Since I’d been in charge of housebreaking her, she believed I was the one to go to in the morning when she needed to go out. She’d come and stand by the bed. When I didn’t respond, she’d voice an urgent whine followed, when ineffective, by persistent nudging and licking my hands and face. At this point, she would decide that, since I was barefoot, I must need my shoes, and she would seek them out and try to give them to me. If I failed to thank her and refused to accept them, she would begin burrowing under the covers, trying to push the shoes onto my feet. This usually got me out of bed, laughing at her persistence and delighted that I had such a smart dog. Cats, on the other hand, don’t read minds, they practice subliminal messaging and mind control. Don’t doubt it.