SARAH VINE: How I learned to talk dog with a giant husky-mastiff cross called Albi
You may think the slobbering heap of canine fur lying at your feet isn’t exactly the Einstein of the animal kingdom.
But then consider the fact that most dog owners like me clear up after our dogs in the park, take them for walks, groom them, feed them, keep them pest-free, and pay the vet’s bills. Which should really make you ask yourself: who’s the dumb one in the relationship?
Could it be that far from being simple, slightly soppy creatures, dogs are, in fact, cunning and, some might say, highly manipulative?
Mention the word ‘manipulative’ to Hannah Worsley in the context of dogs and she chuckles. ‘Are dogs as clever as apes? No; but they are very attentive animals, and good learners. They have learned that they can manipulate humans — and developed the skills to do so.’
Hannah is sitting in my kitchen alongside her colleague, Sean O’Hara. The pair are researchers from Salford University who’ve made it their business to work out not only what makes dogs tick, but what they are actually thinking. Last week they published a paper which created quite a stir.
In essence, they’ve gathered evidence proving that common doggy behaviour towards humans — raising a paw, rolling over, resting a chin and so on — actually constitutes a phenomenon rarely observed even in primates: cross-species communication.
In other words, dogs talk to humans through gestures and behaviour that are not only intended to get a specific response, but also have specific meanings. Think of it as a kind of canine sign language, only with the main topics of conversation being stick-throwing and chicken treats.
Of course, it will come as no surprise to your average dog owner than Fido has no trouble getting his message across when he wants to. One of my own dogs, Snowy, will bang his bowl against the kitchen floor when he’s hungry, for example. But what’s different about this study is the extent to which it identifies certain gestures common in all dogs, giving rise to the notion of a canine lexicon devised purely for communicating with humans.
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