Dogs have long been man’s best friend, living as our domesticated companions for as long as 32,000 years. And every one of us thinks that our dog is uniquely special and smart. But how much do we actually know about our furry buddies and what’s going on inside their heads?
According to Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, dogs are very distinctly different from us genetically, but psychologically, they are more like us than some of our more closely related, more genetically related primate relatives. Here are five interesting facts:
When you look at your dog and yawn, chances are your dog might yawn, too, because dogs can “catch” your yawn, according to a 2008 study published in Biology Letters. This is called “emotional contagion,” and it’s a basic form of empathy.
Previous research has shown that primates could “catch” yawning, but this was the first study to show that human yawns are possibly contagious to domestic dogs as well.
Dogs are believed to empathise with us in other ways as well. Research suggests that they are sensitive to their guardians’ emotions and that their behavior is influenced by the expression of these emotions. A study from the University of Helsinki found that dogs can sense when their owners are angry and have even evolved to respond accordingly. Another study found that dogs respond in a similar way, physiologically and behaviorally, to humans when they hear a human baby crying – another example of emotional contagion.
When it comes to understanding gestures, dogs and young children start around the same level: If someone points to an object, both will be able to interpret the hand movement and find the object. Dogs are able to divine the meaning behind the gestures, and this is something that even chimps failed to do. Dogs also appear to be able to read subtler gestures such as social cues like using the direction of human gaze to find hidden food and objects – a task that apes also struggle with.
A 2014 study in the journal Current Biology took MRI scans of dogs’ brains while they listened to a variety of different dog and human sounds.
The images showed that dog brains have voice areas in the brain, and that they process voices in the same way that human brains do, with a similar part of the brain lighting up at the sound of human voices.
They also found that dog brains responded when they heard emotional sounds, such as crying or laughter. These findings might help explain why vocal communication is so successful between humans and dogs.
Dogs, like dolphins, apes, and parrots, can learn a series of vocal commands – or words. One dog, a border collie named Rico, knew more than 200 words, mostly the names of toys.
What made Rico so special, though, wasn’t the dog’s ability to know so many words, said Hare – it was how he had learned them. Rico was using a process called “fast-mapping,” or inference, which is the same way children learn language skills.
Growing up, children learn words very quickly because if they hear a new word, they can infer its meaning by putting it together with a new object. Rico did the same thing: When scientists asked him to fetch a toy he didn’t know the name of, he looked at all the toys in the room, and all of them – except one – were familiar to him. Therefore, the new word must correspond to the new toy, so that is the one he picked.
Today, more dogs have jobs helping humans than ever before, and one of those jobs – being a guide dog – relies on a dog being able to do one important thing: generalise. In other words, guide dogs have to be able to take what they learn in one specific situation and apply it to all similar situations. This is why they are picked and the focus of their training.
For example, guide dogs know how to apply their training about when and how to cross a street to every street they will ever cross – even if it is a crosswalk they have never been to.
While not all dogs are the same (and not all have all these abilities), it is still clear that we are getting smarter about how smart our canine friends really are.
This story originally appeared on Business Insider as “9 special abilities that show how smart dogs really are”