Are Dogs Like Human 2-year-olds?

Children go through the “terrible 2s,” a developmental stage characterized by whining, misbehavior and perpetual inquisitiveness. Dogs do something similar, only they never grow out of it. Canines aren’t quite as terrible, however, because they can’t throw a decent temper tantrum.

Numerous recent studies compare dogs to human 2-year-olds, both in terms of intelligence and behavior. Consider the following:

Dogs Do Math
Did you know that your dog is able to count up to four or five? Dogs also notice errors in simple computations, such as 1 + 1 = 1 or 1 + 1 = 3, based on research published in the journal Animal Cognition. Such studies on dogs use images or actual objects, not words.

Canine researcher Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees that dogs are much smarter than we tend to think. “We all want insight into how our furry companions think, and we want to understand the silly, quirky and apparently irrational behaviors that Lassie or Rover demonstrate,” he says. “Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.”

Dogs Understand Words
The average dog can learn around 165 words. But canines in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence -- or “super dogs,” as Coren calls them -- can learn 250 words. Is your pet a super dog? Coren lists the seven smartest known breeds:

  1. Border collies
  2. Poodles
  3. German shepherds
  4. Golden retrievers
  5. Dobermans
  6. Shetland sheepdogs
  7. Labrador retrievers

Dogs Comprehend Our Complex Visual Signals
Another recent study in Animal Cognition tested dogs, as well as 2- and 3-year-old kids, on their ability to understand various pointing gestures. This was a workout for the scientific team, as they pointed with their elbows, legs, knees, arms and fingers. The dogs tied with the 2-year-olds.

Lead author Gabriella Lakatos, a research assistant at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, says her team demonstrated “that dogs can understand pointing gestures if a body part protrudes from the body silhouette.” If you want your dog to understand your finger pointing, outstretch your entire arm and point as if you’re playing to the back row of a large theater.

Dogs Copy Us, for Good and Bad
Your pointing can be productive. Coren said multiple studies show that dogs can solve problems by copying your, or a dog’s, behavior. For example, dogs can:

  • learn the location of valued items, such as treats.
  • figure out the fastest routes, such as the quickest way to get to a favorite chair.
  • operate mechanisms, like door latches and simple machines.
  • learn the meaning of words and symbolic concepts, sometimes just by eavesdropping.

Dogs can also deliberately deceive other dogs and people, usually to get a food reward. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs,” warns Coren.

Why Two and Not Three or Older?
If dogs are so capable and intelligent, why are they likened to a human 2-year-old and not a 3-year-old or even an adult? The answer appears to be, coincidentally, twofold.

First, Lakatos explains that for her study, older children may have a more complex ability to realize the intention behind the pointing gesture. This gets into being able to imagine the mindset of others, which sometimes allows for predicting behaviors and developing a deeper understanding of that individual’s actions and more.

Second, it is likely that interactions during language facilitate understanding. Lack of linguistic ability, therefore, is an IQ-limiting factor in dogs. We humans have a unique propensity for language that, coinciding with brain development, really begins to blossom when we’re around 3 years old; dogs go through no such stage.

Humans and Dogs: A Poor Comparison
Even though it can be interesting to see how dogs rate on human-centric tests, Lakatos believes it’s a conceptual mistake to judge dogs based on criteria developed for people. “Any behavioral similarity or similar performance between dogs and children should be investigated separately,” she says. “To give you an example for a reverse case, nobody has tried to herd a flock of sheep with 2-year-olds.”

Do Dogs Ever Feel Guilty?

When a technician comes to my house, my next-door neighbor’s friendly yet hyper dog often dashes outside. Goober jumps on the startled individual in the middle of the street -- I jumped too the first few times the large dog leaped on me. But a stern “No!” and “Sit!” calms him down and leads to “the look.”

You’re probably familiar with this look. It’s the “I’m so sorry, please don’t be mad at me” face, which can melt even the hardest of hearts. Two-year-old children seem to have it mastered. But do dogs really feel guilt?

Study Examines Dogs That Behave and Disobey
Canine expert Alexandra Horowitz recently conducted an extensive study on what we perceive as dog guilt. The Barnard College assistant professor gathered dog owners and their pets, and she asked the owners to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a yummy treat. While the owners were out, Dr. Horowitz gave certain dogs the treats before the owners returned. During some trials, she told the owners that their dog had eaten the forbidden treats, even if the dog had not and had behaved.

Owners told that their dogs had misbehaved, even if that wasn’t the case, reported that their dogs looked guilty. These dogs were said to look guiltier than dogs that had their fill of treats, especially when owners admonished the innocent canines. The study, published in the journal Behavioral Processes, could be interpreted as suggesting dog guilt is all in our minds, but Dr. Horowitz disagrees.

“Based on the experiment, ‘the look’ that we, humans, think indicates dogs’ guilt was not, in fact, prompted by their disobedience,” says Dr. Horowitz. “Instead, it appeared most when they were scolded or about to be scolded.”

Guilt Versus Understanding Forbidden Behaviors
Guilt requires more complex thought than simply realizing that some behavior is forbidden, bad or wrong. Dr. Horowitz thinks that feeling guilt requires some understanding of a moral code of behavior, which one is conscious of violating and realizes that others are aware of the violation too. That requires more complicated mental processing than learning that certain behaviors are punishable or may lead to undesired consequences.

“Dogs learn that they can show the ‘guilty look’ when we approach them with a certain posture or tone of voice. They know it may lead to a scolding, because it has in the past,” says Dr. Horowitz.

Discouraging Unwanted Behaviors
Guilty face or not, since dogs do understand the connection between punishment and particular actions, Dr. Horowitz offers the following advice:

  • If possible, ignore your dog when it first misbehaves. Getting your attention, even if you are angry, can be an award for your dog. The same holds true for certain children who sometimes act out just to become the center of attention.
  • Try to avoid the situation that leads to the misbehavior.
  • Most important, praise your dog when it performs desired behaviors. Your pet will remember the positive feedback and be more inclined to do “good” in the future.

Theory of Mind
Central to guilt is something called “theory of mind.” It’s the ability to attribute mental states, such as beliefs or intentions, to oneself and others. Dr. Horowitz believes dogs may possess a rudimentary theory of mind. During studies, she says dogs seemed to be attentive to other dogs’ attention -- not simply which way the dogs were looking but also whether they were distracted in play, gazing blankly into the distance or ready to play.

Dr. Horowitz cautions against anthropomorphizing dogs or attributing human looks and characteristics to them. She concludes, “The best tactic is always to first step back and look at what the dog is actually doing, without imagining them as little furry people.”

Dog Grass-grazing

Some dogs see a verdant lawn as an invitation to romp. Others view that swath of grass as a welcome snack. If you count your pup among the dogs that occasionally graze on grass, you’re far from alone. Veterinarians receive many questions about grass grazing, and they don’t always have direct answers for their clients, says Laird Goodman, DVM, a member of the board of directors of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.

“Nobody really knows why dogs do it,” says Dr. Goodman. “The short answer is they do it because they like to eat grass. I sometimes say some dogs want to have salad before they have their meal.”

Why Dogs Eat Grass Several possibilities may explain your dog’s occasional inclination to munch on grass. Dr. Goodman and Dr. Steven Steep, past president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, explain the theories.

  • Vomit stimulation It’s an unpleasant reality associated with grazing, but many dogs bring up their food after eating grass. However, it’s unclear whether dogs eat grass to stimulate this action and clear their throat or stomach of unwanted matter. “Most clients think that their pets eat grass because they need to vomit,” says Dr. Steep. “This isn’t necessarily so. Many seemingly healthy dogs eat grass and may or may not vomit. There are also many dogs that have gastrointestinal upset but do not show any interest in grass.”
  • Nutritional deficiency Some veterinarians suspect that dogs graze because they’re missing something in their diet, says Dr. Steep. However, science doesn’t yet provide any definitive answers about what those deficiencies may be.
  • Canines’ animal nature Wolves and coyotes often eat the grain- and green-filled entrails of their prey first, says Dr. Goodman. “That’s the salad before the meal part,” he jokes. One of Dr. Steep’s veterinary school professors suggested that eating grass may even be a throwback behavior that provides some evolutionary advantage to dogs.
  • Taste The answer may be as simple as your dog’s enjoyment of the tender green stuff.

Helping Your Canine Grass Grazer Even though eating grass falls within the realm of normal behavior for dogs, handle your pooch’s grazing with caution, say the veterinarians. They advise you to take these three steps:

  • Define the location your dog grazes Lawns are often treated with toxic fertilizers or pesticides, which could harm your dog -- particularly during the warmer months. Consider providing an alternative like the kitty greens that cat owners grow, in a small pot indoors. Fresh, moist shoots, which may be more appealing to your dog, are less likely to irritate its digestive system than are tough, sharp grass blades.
  • Limit the amount of grazing The messy tummy-upset sometimes associated with grass grazing may cause inflammation of your dog’s esophagus. “Dogs are the consummate vomiters, but it is not always beneficial,” says Dr. Steep. Because dogs don’t digest grass well, provide it only as a small, rare treat.
  • Offer pet food containing greens Feeding your dog a commercial food that contains greens, such as spinach, is a safe alternative, says Dr. Goodman. If your dog’s grass grazing is due to nutritional reasons, the food should satisfy that need.

If you take these steps, there’s no reason to worry about your dog’s behavior. “It has been my observation that some dogs just like to eat grass. They may have a preference for certain types of grass,” says Dr. Steep. “I had a wonderful dog named Moose who would wander the backyard until he found just the right type of grass -- long, slender strands -- and he would graze on those tender shoots.”

Dog Bathroom Antics Explained

On a recent errand run, I stopped by a local bank, post office and coffee shop. My dog companion, Bertie the Scottish terrier, had his own plans. Bertie, who belongs to a vacationing colleague, investigated the nether regions of a corgi mix near the bank, relieved himself briefly on a light pole while approaching the post office and performed an impressive tree-side No. 2 -- complete with vigorous hind leg back kicks -- as a grand finale toward the journey’s pooper scooper end.

While Bertie looks about as menacing as a furry doorstop, all of his actions connect him to his distant wild wolf ancestors. Both animals are what some experts have described as “in-your-face poopers.” Forget shy and squeamish bathroom behaviors. Wolves and dogs take pride in their poop, and they’re not afraid to share their eliminations with the rest of the world.

Poop Prominence
Isabel Barja, a zoologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, recently had the inelegant task of inspecting wolf scat in a mountainous region of the Iberian Peninsula. In a study published in the journal Animal Behavior, Dr. Barja found that wolves chose to do their business on plants that maximized visual impact and odor distribution. She now believes that “in wolves, visual aspects govern the choice of plants for fecal marking.”

She explains that fecal marking is when an individual’s feces can provide information to others about territory control, identity, mating status, foraging efficiency and more. Lisa Peterson, director of communications for the American Kennel Club, says dogs do something similar when they pee or poop on fire hydrants and other urban landmarks. “A dog could probably smell another dog’s urine on a central fire hydrant from 30 yards away,” Peterson guesses.

Height Matters
Barja suggests wolves would go on the highest plants and trees possible were it not for limitations in their body size. That’s because height can be associated with strength and intimidation, especially among male dogs. Like an athlete pumping up his chest and muscles to look big and impressive, male dogs “literally compete to be top dog by leaving their mark on prominent landmarks,” Peterson explains.

That’s easier said than done for dogs like tiny terriers, Chihuahuas and poodles. When little dogs urinate, they often lift their back leg as high as possible, sometimes looking as though they’re falling over, because they’re trying to pee as high as they possibly can.

Hind Leg Kicks
Dogs also may perform a hind leg kicking ritual under certain circumstances. Think of a matador and bullfighter in a ring. Each may move its limbs back and forth in the substrate to demonstrate territory marking. Peterson has observed dogs doing something similar after running through an agility course.

Instead of performing a football player-type victory dance, the dog might “voom-voom” with its back legs after going to the bathroom, spreading around its feces scent. Agility and other group events involve many competing dog participants, so there’s often a lot of leg action taking place behind the scenes.

Butt Scoot Boogie
Even if your dog isn’t much of an athlete, you might have seen it scooting its butt along the ground or sniffing the rear end of other dogs. That’s because all dogs and wolves possess internal glands called anal sacs. They release “calling card” odors with each bowel movement. And when dogs sniff each other, they’re actually investigating the odors released by the anal sacs.

Butt scooting can be just another marking move, or it could be a health problem symptom, since the sacs may become infected. Be sure to do the following:

  • Regularly inspect the area to make sure it is clean, dry and free of welts and bumps.
  • Take note if your dog frequently licks the sac region, or if your pal frequently drags its rear end across the floor.
  • Be aware of unpleasant odors that could be coming from the sacs.
  • If you detect any of the above symptoms, visit your veterinarian, who will empty, or “express,” your dog’s anal glands. Some groomers can also perform this procedure, but if you suspect that your dog’s sacs are infected, it’s better to have your veterinarian do it.

Whether your dog is an Irish wolfhound or a fur ball like Bertie, there is definitely a method behind its bathroom behavior madness. While no owner looks forward to doggie cleanups, at least consider that you’re not just picking up any old poop. You’re hauling away a sophisticated marking tool, unique to your dog, which is part of a communication system that took thousands of years to evolve in your pet’s distant wolf ancestors. 

A Dog Howling Primer

A few years ago, veterinarian Sophia Yin took her Australian cattle dog, Zoe, to a horse ranch and let the dog sleep in the stables overnight. In the middle of the night, Dr. Yin was startled by a strange, loud howling sound. "It sounded like the loneliest dog in the world," recalls Dr. Yin, DVM, a certified applied animal behaviorist who works at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. She then realized it was her own pet, Zoe. “She thought she had been left and abandoned,” Dr. Yin recalls.

Your dog may howl when you least expect it -- as you’re warbling a tune at the piano, when a fire engine siren sounds or if your dog is left alone in a strange place. Howling may not be music to your ears, but to your pooch, it is a throwback to its wolf instincts. The purposes, meanings and triggers of howling may surprise you.

Why Dogs Howl
Howling -- like barking -- is one of the ways that dogs communicate with other dogs, and to a lesser degree, with people. Studies have found that dogs bark for different reasons. While less research has been done on dog howling, researchers believe that dog howling is a throwback to wolf heritage and that howls also have a variety of meanings.

Dogs often howl out of boredom or loneliness, seeking to communicate with others, as was the case with Dr. Yin’s dog. They also may be trying to summon other dogs or alert them as to their location, identity, territory and more. In the wild, wolves howl in an attempt to reassemble the pack after individuals travel far and wide. Dogs -- descendants of wolves -- may sometimes be trying to do the same.

“Because howling is long and sustained, its carrying distance is further than a bark, which is short and brief,” says Lisa Peterson, communications director for the American Kennel Club. “It’s like a ‘long distance’ doggie telephone call, since the long, drawn-out sound can travel for distances of several miles."

Howling may be triggered by sirens, singing or other noises the dog finds similar to howling, says Dan Estep, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist in Colorado and co-author of Help! I'm Barking and I Can't Be Quiet (Island Dog Press 2006). Social facilitation convinces dogs to copy another dog's behavior, such as when one pooch barks at the mail carrier and the rest of the dogs on the block do the same.

Prolific Howlers
Some dog breeds tend to howl more than others, such as hound dogs or Northern breeds, like Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes. That’s because humans have encouraged this type of vocalization over the years for hunting, sledding and other activities. “The hunter needs to hear them, so they want to breed a dog with a loud bay or howl that they can hear over distances,” Peterson explains.

On occasion, dogs will preface a howl with a few short barks. Researchers believe that this type of howl is meant to try to attract extra attention, sort of like tapping a fork on a glass in a crowded room. Other research has found that dogs have distinctive barks, and the same is likely true of howls. “With wolves, the thing about howling that makes it different from barking is that it’s not only longer but more musical in tone,” Dr. Yin says. "It can be carried farther and carry more of an individual characteristic.”

How to Control Howling
If your pup’s howling gets on your nerves or your neighbors complain, you may want to try these tips:

  • Mask triggers If the doorbell or a noon siren from the firehouse causes your dog to howl, leave the television or radio on to mute the other sounds, Peterson suggests.
  • Try an anti-bark collar If you live in an apartment and need to curtail the howling or else, Estep suggests trying a training collar that either sprays citronella oil or emits an ultrasonic sound when the dog tries to vocalize.
  • Behavior modification Desensitization to triggers may work, Estep advises. Set up training sessions during which you keep your pet calm and reward it with treats while exposing your dog to what makes it howl -- the ringing of a doorbell or a telephone, for example.

You can also avoid situations in which you know your dog may howl. After hearing Zoe's plaintive howl once, Dr. Yin let her dog sleep in her car whenever they went away on subsequent trips. Given the familiar environment and Dr. Yin’s frequent safety checks, Zoe napped in peaceful silence.