Dogs Are Even More Like Us Than We Thought

 A fly fisherman and his golden retriever enjoy the Provo River in Utah. Canines, emerging research suggests, are more like humans than we ever imagined. (Cameron Lawson, National Geographic Creative)

A fly fisherman and his golden retriever enjoy the Provo River in Utah. Canines, emerging research suggests, are more like humans than we ever imagined. (Cameron Lawson, National Geographic Creative)

It's likely no surprise to dog owners, but growing research suggests that man's best friend often acts more human than canine.   

Dogs can read facial expressions, communicate jealousy, display empathy, and even watch TV, studies have shown. They've picked up these people-like traits during their evolution from wolves to domesticated pets, which occurred between 11,000 and 16,000 years ago, experts say.

In particular, "paying attention to us, getting along with us, [and] tolerating us" has led to particular characteristics that often mirror ours, says Laurie Santos, director of the Yale Comparative Cognition Laboratory. (Read more about how dogs evolved in National Geographic magazine.)

Here are a few of the latest studies showing the human side of our canine companions.

Eavesdropping Dogs

Social eavesdropping—or people-watching—is central to human social interactions, since it allows us to figure out who's nice and who's mean.

According to a study published in August in the journal Animal Behaviour, our dogs listen in too. (Read "Animal Minds" in National Geographicmagazine.)

In a new study, scientists tested 54 dogs that each watched their owners struggle to retrieve a roll of tape from a container. The dogs were divided into three groups: helper, non-helper, and control.

In the helper group, the owner requested help from another person, who held the container. In the non-helper group, the owner asked for help from a person, who then turned their back without helping. In the control group, the additional person turned his or her back without being asked for help. In all experiments, a third, "neutral" person sat in the room.

After the first round of experiments, the neutral person and the helper or non-helper both offered treats to the dog.

In the non-helper group, canines most frequently favored the neutral person's treat, shunning the non-helper. However, in the helper group, the dogs did not favor either the helper or the neutral person over the other. Scientists have previously observed similar results in human infants and tufted capuchin monkeys. (See "Can Dogs Feel Our Emotions? Yawn Study Suggests Yes.")

So are dogs taking sides by ignoring the people who are mean to their owners? Only future research will tell.

Made You Look

Gaze following is instinctual for many animals—including humans, chimps, goats, dolphins, and even the red-footed tortoise—because it alerts animals to everything from immediate threats to "a particularly tasty berry bush," says Lisa Wallis, a doctoral student at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria.

Dogs were previously thought to follow human gazes only when food or toys were involved. Now, a new study suggests dogs also follow human gazes into blank space—but only if they're untrained. (See "5 Amazing Stories of Devoted Dogs.")

"We know they should be able to do it," says Wallis, leader of the research published in August in the journal Animal Behaviour, but training was the "missing piece of the puzzle."

Read the full story at National Geographic