Cats and Dogs
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Can dogs smell tears?

What Your Dog Wants

Dogs are “really good at reading our emotions,” says one expert. But we’re not so good at reading theirs.

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Published May 12, 2022 Updated June 12, 2022

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My family is one of the estimated 23 million American households that got a pandemic pet, and Ozzy, our new beloved German Shepherd-Afghan Hound-Chow Chow mix, has brought us joy during a very difficult time. A 2021 study found that, during the pandemic, people who owned dogs felt more socially supported and were less likely to have symptoms of depression than people who didn’t own a dog but wanted to. Ozzy’s rock-star-like fur, which looks teased and crimped around his head — he’s named after Ozzy Osbourne — and weird monkeylike noises make us giggle, and my kids love playing tug-of-war with him outside.

But Ozzy has also, at times, been a pain in the butt, doing things like jumping on the kitchen table to steal my burrito and pulling his leash like a sled dog on walks. So a few months ago, my partner and I hired a trainer to help us figure him out. The first thing our trainer, Amber Marino, taught us was that we were probably misinterpreting much of Ozzy’s behavior, as most owners do. “Dogs are always communicating with us, but most of the time we’re not listening, which can lead to behavioral issues,” she told me. I was surprised to learn from her that when a pup rolls over, he doesn’t necessarily want a tummy rub — it could be that he wants some space. I’d always assumed that when a dog wags its tail, it meant she was happy, but it could actually mean that she’s amped up and about to lash out.

I wanted to know more about what makes dogs act the way they do, so I reached out to several scientists to explain what humans get wrong when it comes to dog behavior. Here are some of the fascinating things I learned.

How to recognize signs of distress

One key mistake people make is that they often miss signs that dogs are stressed or anxious — often a precursor to aggressive behavior. According to the experts, a stressed-out pup may show she’s scared by licking her lips, yawning, lifting a front paw, shedding hair, scratching, shaking, panting or pacing. Her eyes can change, too: When we used to take our other dog, Henry, to the dog park, he would sometimes get what my partner and I referred to as “crazy eye” — his eyes would bug out, and you’d see more of the whites. I didn’t realize until recently that this is a phenomenon called “whale eye,” and it’s often a sign of doggie distress.

This doesn’t mean that every time your dog pants, yawns or lifts a paw, he’s on the verge of a breakdown. Dogs pant when they’re hot, too. Some dogs, such as pointers, lift their front paws when they pick up a scent. Yawning can also mean, of course, that your dog is tired. To understand what a dog’s body language and behavior are saying, “you have to look at the dog’s whole body, and you have to think about the context in which you’re in,” said psychologist Sarah Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College in New York City.

So if your dog is panting but he isn’t hot or winded, or if your dog is yawning but not seemingly tired, yes, he could be stressed. And especially if you’re seeing a constellation of these stress behaviors at once, that’s a good sign that your pup is uncomfortable, Dr. Byosiere said.

If your dog is out of sorts, what should you do? First, try to figure out what might be causing his discomfort, said psychologist Angie Johnston, director of the Boston College Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory. Are you in an unfamiliar place? Is your dog meeting new people or dogs? Once you have an idea as to what might be making your pup uncomfortable, “pull back from that activity,” she said, and see if those anxious behaviors dissipate.

Tail movements are another thing we think we understand but typically don’t. “The most common misconception, by far, is that tail-wagging definitely means the dog is happy,” Dr. Johnston said. If a dog’s tail-wagging is fluid and relaxed, then yes, she’s probably content, she said — but if the tail is wagging only slightly, and seems rigid, then it may be a sign that she is about to be aggressive. Research suggests, too, that when a dog’s wagging tail leans more to the right, she’s happy, but if it leans more to the left, she’s feeling hostile.

How to manage a dog’s social life

Many of the mistakes we make as dog owners revolve around how we handle their social interactions. We often don’t recognize the signs — panting, stiff tail-wagging, lip-licking, yawning — that our dog is uncomfortable around other people or dogs and needs help. Responding to their cues might mean asking other people to give your dog space. Maybe it means leaving the dog park and going home. “Probably the worst thing to do is to not do anything,” Dr. Byosiere said. If you don’t step in, you’re also increasing the risk that they could become aggressive.

One reason we make these errors is that we tend to assume dogs are more extroverted than they really are. “People who love dogs love to meet new dogs. But not all dogs like to meet new people or dogs,” said Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who founded their Canine Cognition Center. If you want to meet a dog, first ask her owner if it’s OK — and respect them if they say no.

If the owner says it’s OK, approach the dog slowly. Stop a few feet away, kneel or crouch down, and see if the dog approaches you, Dr. Hare suggested. If he doesn’t — and especially if he looks or walks away — take that as a sign that you shouldn’t get any closer. If you see some of the distress signals mentioned earlier, that’s also a sign that he’s feeling nervous and that you should back off. And don’t approach a dog with your hand outstretched, Dr. Hare said — this can trigger aggression in dogs that have been mistreated, and it could lead to a bite. Instead, hold your hand out in a fist, or don’t extend a hand at all.

Don’t anthropomorphize your pup

The experts told me that we often attribute our dog’s actions to feelings they’re not really having. I have always assumed that Ozzy licks my face because he loves me. But — and boy, was I sorry to learn this — dogs often lick faces because they’re hoping to get a taste of what you recently ate, said Evan MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist and comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona. (This stems from the behavior of young wolves, who lick the insides of their mothers’ mouths so that their moms regurgitate food for them to eat. Which explains why dogs do gross things like eat people’s vomit.)

Another mistake we make is assuming that dogs like the same things we do. Yes, some dogs love to be petted and snuggled. But many don’t. Ozzy sometimes rolls onto his back when my 11-year-old pets him, and that may be because he’s feeling uncomfortable, not because he wants a belly rub, Dr. MacLean said — although admittedly, he said, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Also, that guilty expression you see on your dog’s face after she’s done something “bad”? Research shows it’s not really a sign that she feels sheepish — she’s probably just responding to your anger. “Dogs show this look as a response to their person’s behavior or tone, not to their doing something we consider wrong,” said cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, who directs the Barnard College Dog Cognition Lab.

Ultimately, dogs understand us far better than we understand them, Dr. Johnston said. Over thousands of years of domestication, they’ve become “really good at reading our emotions,” she said, but “I don’t think that it’s worked as much in the other direction.” To do right by our beloved canines, we really need to get to know them — and their weird little cues. I realize now that Ozzy has been communicating his needs to us pretty clearly but that we just haven’t been receptive — and now that we’re paying more attention, he’s become much better behaved. We’re still working on his proclivity toward burrito theft, however. That one is harder to tame.

Audio produced by Kate Winslett .

New research suggests we’ve been missing cues for heart disease in women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women, yet it is woefully underdiagnosed and undertreated. Why? Anahad O’Connor wrote about new research suggesting that women often have milder symptoms than men and hesitate to get help — and when they do seek care, many medical professionals don’t take them seriously or diagnose them properly.

When embracing the little things in life goes viral

A trend that began early in the pandemic, encouraging people to appreciate even the most seemingly mundane moments, continues to thrive on social media. This approach, which draws from mindfulness, positive psychology and the Danish custom of hygge, helps people “romanticize their lives.”

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The science behind why your dog copies your behavior and tears up when they’re reunited with you

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  • Dogs evolved over centuries from ancient wild wolves into loyal partners to humans.
  • A growing body of research explains how dogs’ distinctive features and skills strengthened the human-canine bond.
  • Dogs can tell when we’re stressed, when we’re lying, and mirror our behavior, research suggests.

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Dogs have long been considered man’s best friend, and for good reason. Over centuries, our four-legged canine companions evolved to become loyal partners.

A growing body of scientific research suggests our furry friends have distinctive features and skills that allow them to perceive, understand, communicate, and show affection toward humans.

From sniffing out when we’re stressed to tearing up when reunited with their owners, here is what science reveals about how humans’ special relationship with dogs developed over time.

Dogs evolved from wild wolves into our puppy pals

Scientists generally agree that dogs evolved from wolves to become the furry, fetch-loving domestic animals they are today roughly 15,000 years ago. But scientists have different theories on how exactly the split from wolves happened.

In a study published in the journal Nature in June, geneticists at the Francis Crick Institute analyzed the genomes — or all of the genetic information — of 72 ancient wolves from Europe, Siberia, and North America spanning 100,000 years. Then they compared the wolf DNA, which makes up the genome, to DNA of modern and ancient dogs.

By analyzing the DNA, scientists found early and modern dogs are most similar to gray wolves in Siberia about 13,000 to 23,000 years ago, suggesting domestication took place somewhere in Asia.

«That’s consistent with a wolf population from Central Asia leading to the origin of dogs,» Adam Boyko, a canine geneticist at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study, previously told Insider.

That might not be the end of the story, Boyko added. The findings don’t rule out the possibility that dogs may have been domesticated multiple times, as ancient dogs in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe also show ancestry from wolves in the Middle East.

Though their wild ancestors are known for their ferocious nature, dogs evolved to have bigger and more baby-like eyes over time.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2019, researchers discovered that dogs have muscles around their eyes that help them make puppy dog eyes — that soft squinting look that melts your heart. Wolves don’t have these muscles, which suggests dogs’ adorable expression is an evolutionary trait that helped them get on better with humans.

Dogs can sniff out when we’re stressed

Dogs may be able to smell when you’re stressed, according to a study published in Plos One in September. Stress responses trigger physiological changes in humans’ sweat and breath that dogs can detect.

The study involved collecting breath and sweat samples from human participants before and after they completed a «stress-inducing» task. Then dogs trained in identifying odors had to choose between a sample from an unstressed human and a stressed one. The dogs correctly identified the stress sample 94% of the time.

«This study demonstrates that dogs can discriminate between the breath and sweat taken from humans before and after a stress-inducing task,» the study authors wrote, meaning they were able to identify human odors associated with stress.

Dogs mirror their owners’ behavior (and look like them, too)

Dogs even adopt their owners’ personalities. Research published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2019 surveyed more than 1,600 dog owners, representing about 50 different breeds. The owners were asked to evaluate their dogs’ personalities and answer questions about their dogs’ behavioral histories. The owners were also asked questions about their own personalities.

Extroverted owners rated their dogs as more active and playful, while owners of more fearful dogs reported more negative emotions.

And while several studies support the notion that dogs and owners often look alike, that’s largely because owners tend to pick dog breeds based on the breed’s resemblance to themselves.

Dogs can communicate with humans and know when you make a mistake

Research suggests dogs are hardwired to communicate with and understand people in unique ways.

«Dogs are very responsive to the way that we talk to them,» John Bradshaw, anthrozoologist and author of «The Animals Among Us,» previously told Insider. «It tricks many owners into thinking they literally understand every word.»

But while they might not understand the words you’re saying, Bradshaw added, dogs are very good at learning to respond to their owner’s tone of voice in specific ways. «It’s almost true that the dog is responding to every word they say,» Bradshaw said.

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2021 found that dogs can understand the difference between humans’ accidental and deliberate actions — or, in other words, when we screw up.

The experiment involved 51 dogs who were taught they’d get tasty treats from a human through a gap in a glass partition. Then researchers looked at how dogs reacted when food rewards were withheld from them.

In the study, dogs waited much longer to retrieve the treat when the researcher purposefully withheld it than when the researcher dropped it or couldn’t get it through the glass partition. That finding suggests dogs can distinguish between humans’ intentional actions and unintentional ones.

«Dogs’ communicative skills uniquely position them to fill the niche that they do alongside humans,» Emily Bray, a canine-cognition researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson, previously told Insider in an email. «Many of the tasks that they perform for us, now and in the past (i.e. herding, hunting, detecting, acting as service dogs), are facilitated by their ability to understand our cues.»

Dogs’ eyes well up in tears when reunited with their owners

It’s common to see dogs overjoyed to be reunited with their owners.

In a study published in Current Biology in August, researchers recruited 22 dogs and their owners. First, researchers measured tear volume in dogs’ eyes during a normal interaction with their owners, as a baseline. Then, following five to seven hours spent away from their owner, researchers measured tear volume on the surface of the dogs’ eyes each time they were reunited.

After a long period of separation, the dogs’ eyes were brimming with tears when they saw their owner.

«We found that dogs shed tears associated with positive emotions,» Takefumi Kikusui, the study’s lead author and a veterinary researcher at Azabu University in Japan, said in a press release.

This behavior may be related to dogs producing more oxytocin, commonly called the «love hormone,» when they see their owners. Oxytocin also plays a role in emotional bonding in humans.

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