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Love, laughter and lifelong memories: 19 amazing facts every dog-lover needs to know – The Guardian

Did you know that dogs can tell the time? Zoologists and other experts reveal everything they’ve learned about our canine companions
It’s possible to have a lot of dogs over a long adult life and know even less about them at the end of it than when you started. They’re all so different, almost like people. So, don’t take this as a dog blueprint or, heaven forfend, a guide book – more a series of facts that will make you a better, more delighted companion.
Or rather, as Jules Howard, a zoologist and the author of Wonderdog, says: “Think about the eyebrow as being composed of different sets of muscles. In dogs, one of those muscles is super pumped – much, much bigger than in any other mammal.” This has the strength to lift up in a “really beautiful way”, Howard says. In the 10,000 to 15,000 years of human-canine interaction, “dogs have evolved a muscle that we recognise as love, or dedication, or ‘babyness’. It’s an evolution of a childlike face. It’s kind of creepy that it works.”
The origin story of the domestic dog used to be that humankind, recognising the alert and protective capabilities of the wolf, simply tamed it. Then came the revisionist idea: that they recognised our resource wealth – we are always amassing food, making it nice, then throwing some of it away – and essentially tamed us, by being cute (see the eyebrows).
There is no “good art that tells the domestication story”, Howard says, which appears to have happened in Europe and east Asia simultaneously. The canine palaeontologist Darcy Morey blew a hole in the artificial versus natural selection dichotomy (artificial selection would be us breeding dogs for traits, natural would be them adapting to us), arguing for “co-evolution”, driven by what the philosopher Donna Haraway calls “a nasty developmental infection called love”.
“Williams-Beuren is a rare syndrome in one in 18,000 people that makes them super social,” Howard says. “If you look at that collection of genes in mammals, you see DNA insertions in dogs that you don’t see in wolves. The more mutations they have, the more social they are. Throughout the whole of the dog family, we see lots of insertions in these genes.”
Stanley Coren, a psychologist and the author of The Intelligence of Dogs, evaluated more than 1,000 dogs, and found the Ocean traits we use to characterise people – openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (although we no longer use “neuroticism”, preferring a stability-to-instability scale) – map precisely on to dogs.
“Some dogs will go from being perfectly quiet and happy to growling and snapping, and that’s very similar to the human dimension of stability-instability,” he says. “In theory, we can change each other, but how many marriages do you know that went on the rocks because: ‘Yes, I knew he was moody when I married him, but I thought I could change that.’ You can’t fight genes. Genes don’t explain everything, but they load the dice.”
The idea of the family as a pack, in which there is an alpha and all other behaviour shakes down from the pack’s recognition of that, has been peculiarly tenacious in dog husbandry. The theory goes: they have to understand there is a hierarchy in which they are at the bottom and therefore shouldn’t sleep in your bed or eat at the same time.
This is true to the degree that all animals have, as Howard explains, “an innate understanding of who is best to avoid and who is best to challenge for a food reward or mating reward, but it’s no truer of dogs than it would be of a robin. The problem I have with the alpha male theory is, I think of politics and people like David Cameron.” Which is to say, quite a basic, coarse version of interaction. A dog slotting in to a human household, after millions of years evolving to minimise aggression and obtain food, will have much more sophisticated relationships.
As a result of the first misperception – that a perfect, “natural” dog diet is entirely meat – pet food has been developed to have way too much protein. A lot of mainstream brands are 40% protein, whereas dogs do best at about 18% as adults (22% as puppies). This messes with their gut microbiome (yes, they also have one of those), causes inflammation and damages their kidney function.
Border collies and Australian cattle dogs are renowned for their incredible skill sets and are often described in human-adjacent terms intellectually, eg “as intelligent as a three-year-old”. But when they DNA-swabbed the highly trained dogs, these breeds were simply more obedient than others. In other words, your own dog could probably herd a sheep; it’s just choosing not to. Your three-year-old, meanwhile, would be terrible at it.
So-called “button dogs” – you can see them on Instagram – will, put in front of a mat with buttons that say words, reliably hit “walk” or “ouch” or “treat”, to the extent that it almost looks like we have broken the final frontier and can talk to one another. A large-scale study that is under way at the University of California San Diego is already confident that the button presses are not random.
However, Amritha Mallikarjun, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, counsels: “When we use a human linguistic interface, we start ascribing too much to our joint understanding of these words.” There is no evidence to suggest that they know “love” means love; they just know what the sound leads to (food, probably).
The breakthrough study was in 2010, where dogs were fMRI-scanned while looking at an image of a person they “loved”. In humans, a similar image would light up our caudate nucleus; the same was true in dogs. In 2020, a study combined fMRI with eye-tracking and behavioural preference, and discovered that the bond between a dog and its human caregiver was remarkably like the attachment bond between human infants and their mothers. They don’t just love you, in other words; they really, really love you.
Everyone thinks their dog has a guilt face and that this corresponds to their bad behaviour, but it’s much more likely that they are just reading your angry cue and recognise themselves as its hapless cause. In order to feel remorse, they would have to be capable of an original betrayal. “People who study monkeys and apes are always looking for signs of deception,” Howard says – and they find it. “There’s no strong evidence that dogs can do that. Their depth of contemplative intelligence is not the same as apes.”
I spend a lot of time watching bros on TikTok who find abused dogs tied up underneath trailers, then restore them to their natural state of joy. It’s a magical process; all it takes is a flea treatment and a whole heap of love and everything is forgotten.
This is not, unfortunately, the case. “There was a 10-year experiment done in the 60s,” Howard says, “where they reared up generations of dogs and treated them in different ways – some in solitary confinement, some banned from contact with humans. Those dogs who were mistreated, even the ones who had a bad incident with another dog, were clearly traumatised. They were the most unpredictable; they were the least likely to wag their tails. The result of that study was so convincing that in the US dogs stopped being used as research animals.”
“We know this as a fact,” says Robert Alleyne, a dog behaviourist. “There are dogs who can detect epilepsy; there are cancer bio-detection dogs.” This became newly fascinating during Covid, when French researchers found a sensitivity rating of 97% in dogs, which was higher than any of the 15 antigen tests available at that time. Alleyne goes on to note, anecdotally, that his dog could smell depression. “Whenever I felt down, I could see that he would recognise it. He would keep his head on my knee for an hour, saying: ‘I understand.’”
“A lot of choices they make are the result of something that happened in the past,” Alleyne says, “and it only needs to have happened once.” Sometimes this is useful. For instance, my dog once found a whole sausage roll in a Greggs bag and will now chase after the branding in any circumstance. Newsflash – very often there is a bit of pastry in there. But it also means that one act of aggression from another dog can lead to a lifelong fear response, so intervene early. “This is one of the reasons why we get it so wrong with dogs,” Alleyne says. “Although they are simplistic creatures, sometimes we think they’re too simple.”
“Dogs have a part of the brain that’s very good at pack recognition,” Howard says. This can span long periods of absence – years, even. But the shared-parent thing? Nope, we have no way of knowing.
“All of us could get better at reading dogs,” Howard says. “We’re really good at reading one another, but dogs are like us – they’ve evolved to be really expressive. Even how a tail wags is a great way to understand how the dog is feeling. There is a lot of anxiety in dogs and a lot of behaviour we should take more seriously than we do. Dogs whining if they’re left on their own – that’s probably not OK.”
It’s a puzzle of separation anxiety that a dog that can be left for 40 minutes will go bananas at 41 minutes. This is related to the concentration of the owner’s smell in the air, which will dissipate at a stable rate. Also, says Vanessa Woods, the co-author of Survival of the Friendliest: “Like people, dogs have a body clock in which their body creates digestive enzymes in a regular way,” so they will be able to plot the passage of time through how hungry they are. But no, they don’t know it’s midnight.
This is the simplest test imaginable: yawn at your dog and it will start yawning. “Contagious yawning is related to empathy scores in adults,” Woods says. “In one study, more than 70% of dogs yawned when they saw someone yawning.”
The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, researching laughter in nonhuman mammals, found that the laugh-like sound that dogs make when they are panting, played to other dogs, reduces stress and increases tail-wagging, play bows and general prosocial behaviour.
There are a number of foods you are told never to give your dog, mainly chocolate, and they seem to wrap their jaws around them periodically, to no ill effect. Don’t make this your one-trial learning. It feels seasonal to point out that raisins and grapes can cause liver failure or, at the very least, an incredibly expensive out-of-hours vet visit.


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