A zealous dog owner will tell anyone who will listen (and most who won't) that their dog is soooo cute and super smart and does all the best tricks. Tricks like sit, lie down, roll over, play dead, and possess a coherent theory of mind. Wait, what was that last one? Is that a college philosophy course for adorable puppies? Do they get little wire-frame glasses and tiny scarves? Nope: Theory of mind refers to a creature understanding that other beings have different perceptions, and that those perceptions can be valuable. It's a shockingly advanced societal concept, and one that pretty much any human being talking on their cellphone during a movie clearly does not possess. But dogs might.
Yawning is a phenomenon directly connected to empathy, and as such has only been found to occur in species capable of empathizing (i.e., humans and other primates), and only then within a single species. Humans yawn when they see other humans yawn; chimps yawn when they see other chimps yawn. You just yawned after reading the word "yawn" so many times in this paragraph. WE ARE INSIDE YOUR BRAIN.
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The exception to the rule is, of course, dogs. Dogs can totally "catch" your yawn. Researchers aren't exactly sure why this is (they don't even know why yawning is so contagious among humans), but they speculate that humans have used yawns to indicate exhaustion since back in the day when language was little more than a series of farts and punches. Natural selection favored dogs that could communicate with us in as many ways as possible, and yawning just turned out to be one of those ways.
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What's more, when we're down in the dumps, dogs feel bad for us. The physical ways they respond -- tails tucked, heads bowed, bestowing our faces with tender, dog-sack-scented kisses -- is a form of consolation. This is why dogs make such fantastic therapy animals: It's like having a free shrink who follows you around, listens without interrupting, and works for table scraps. So obviously dogs have an uncanny ability to read our emotions ... but how? Well, it's because all humans, whether right- or left-handed, display our emotions predominantly on the right side of our faces. When we're looking at each other, whether gauging prospects for romance or assessing the likelihood of a knifing, it's the right side of the face we look at. It's called left gaze bias, and the only species known to do it are humans, rhesus monkeys ... and dogs. Although hopefully your dog is looking for neither romance nor potential stab buddies.
This may seem like common sense to your big ol' human brain, but it's actually pretty rare when we're talking about a lesser species: Your dog knows what you can see and understands that it's different from what he can see. And no, we don't mean that your dog knows you currently have a deluge of open browser tabs overflowing with porn. (Although he does. He knows. Look at his eyes. He judges you.)
Researchers tested this out by sticking a dog and a human on opposite sides of a room, in the center of which were two identical toys. They then separated the toys from the human with barriers: In front of one toy, they put a see-through barrier; in front of the other, a solid one. When the human commanded the dog to "Bring it here!" without any physical indication as to which toy she was referring to, the dog brought the toy that the human could see -- the one behind the transparent barrier. Unless the human turned her back, that is. Then the dog brought whichever toy it damn well pleased.
Dogs, whose economy is largely based on leftovers and poop smells, even exploit this for their own benefit. When you tell Fido not to eat the Hot Pocket you just painstakingly nuked to perfection, he won't eat it as long as you're looking at it. But the moment you close your eyes, turn around, or put something between yourself and that breaded capsule of nuclear plastic cheese, your dog will lose all his canine morality and go for it. You know the old saying: On your deathbed, it will not be the Hot Pockets you ate that haunt you, but the ones you never even tried for.
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A dog's desire to have the same food as the humans around him goes a whole lot deeper than the simple fact that whatever you're eating probably tastes a little less like dehydrated horse ass than what is in his bowl. Probably. (We don't mean to judge. You hork down that Slim Jim, friend -- it's your life.)
You see, even if you switched up your diet for an all-dog-chow one (that's what paleo is, right?), as long as you seemed to thoroughly enjoy eating it, your dog would beg for his own food just as hard as he currently begs for a steak. Dogs want to eat what we're eating, simply because we like it and they trust our judgment. Scientists studying this phenomenon found that it held true even if dogs were presented with a seemingly obvious decision between a small plate of food and a large one: If the humans ate and enjoyed the small plate, the dogs also chose the small plate over the larger portion sitting right next to it. That's the level of dedication they have: If you are, for some reason, sharing every meal with your canine companion and you have an eating disorder, so does he.
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This is another one that might sound completely obvious to your arrogant, top-of-the-food-chain brain, but the fact of the matter is that dogs and humans are the only two species currently clinging to our big blue spaceball who understand the point of pointing. Pointing is much more complicated than it seems. Even after extensive training, chimps, our closest relatives on the evolutionary family tree, don't really "get" it. But dogs do, because evolution has conditioned them to understand that when humans point, 1) humans have a separate perspective than they do, 2) that perspective is usually helpful, and, most importantly, 3) that perspective is almost always trustworthy. We already covered how dogs understand our different visual fields, and that they trust our judgment, so it follows that a dog would understand that our perspective is probably helpful -- if going after a point never got them anywhere, evolutionarily speaking, they wouldn't follow it today. But paying attention to pointing humans has resulted in a net gain of literally millions of pounds of loose hamburger meat over the millennia, and that's a pretty good track record.
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Perhaps most amazingly, dogs are so sensitive to our directional cues that they can follow our intent even if we're not actually pointing. Getting your dog's attention and then looking fixedly at an object without saying anything is all it takes for a dog to know you're thinking about that object. Be careful with your newfound powers: The next time you're out for a walk and you turn to studiously observe a fine behind passing by, if you catch Fido's eye first, you might be subconsciously telling him that it's delicious.
You and your dog are out for a lovely evening's jaunt, full of exercise and pooping, when you pass by another canine. You innocently reach down to pet the critter, and your own dog suddenly leaps into action, trapping all of you inside an inescapable leash-cocoon of constrictor knots. That's an interesting reaction for a dog to have, seeing as how dogs were long thought to be incapable of jealousy. Scientists separate emotions into two categories: primary emotions such as fear and anger, which are experienced pretty much across the board, and secondary emotions such as guilt and jealousy, which are thought to require self-consciousness. And self-consciousness is an exclusive, primates-only club (opposable thumbs, black tie, a fine appreciation of masturbation, all that jazz).
Scientists eventually set out to prove the theory by seating pairs of dogs next to each other and then asking them to perform the same trick; upon successful completion of said trick, one dog was rewarded and one was not. After a few rounds, they found something surprising: The unrewarded dog stopped performing the trick, even showing clear signs of stress and annoyance.
Interesting. But that might simply demonstrate that dogs understand fairness, not necessarily jealousy, right? Well, dog owners disagree, and they just won't friggin' shut up about it. They point out that dogs have the very same love- and jealousy-related hormone as we humans (oxytocin), and frequently show themselves to be capable of some pretty intense envy. Mothers of litters will sometimes become jealous of their own puppies because the cute little bastards are stealing all the attention -- and if the owners aren't careful, the bitch might even begin to display aggressive behavior toward her own offspring. Admittedly, that's anecdotal evidence, but still: What other creature would turn on her own children because it just loves its master more?
That's some Game of Thrones shit right there.
Liz Emery is a seven-brothered sapiosexual who has been a waitress, dental assistant, auction house secretary, janitor, car saleswoman, and other neat things. You can read all about them here.
Related Reading: Dogs are awesome, but did you know they sometimes shoot us with guns? That's shocking, but not nearly as shocking as the fact that a canine soldier ran telephone wire under rubble during a battle to save hundreds of men. Still need more crazy facts about your favorite four-legged, constantly farting species? Read on.