Pets become such beloved members of the family that it can sometimes be easy to forget they’re an entirely different species. While they may go through life at our side – on walks, in the car, even in bed – that doesn’t mean they’re experiencing life through a human perspective. As direct descendants of wolves that have been shaped by human domestication, dogs contain a unique and unusual blend of their wild canine ancestors and human caretakers – combining powerful instincts with emotional acuity in one adorable package. From sensory superpowers to innate altruism, discover ten weird facts about your furry friend.
1. Dogs can understand as many as 200 words and gestures. The average dog is estimated to be as intelligent as a 2-year-old child.
While you may not want them as your accountant or lawyer, canine researchers recently determined the surprising scope of dogs’ language and numerical abilities. According to psychologist Stanley Coren, PhD., who has reviewed multiple studies on canine intelligence, the average dog has a mental dictionary of over 165 words or signals, while the top 20 percent (known as “super dogs”) can retain over 200. They can also count to four or five and do basic arithmetic, putting them on par with an average two-year-old. Like a toddler, these abilities can vary between individuals. Data shows the smartest breeds include border collies, poodles, and German shepherds. Intelligence is categorized into three types: instinctive, adaptive, and working/obedience. “Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought,” says Coren.
2. All dogs dream – some more than others.
All dog owners have likely watched a sleeping pet twitch and vocalize during a nap – some may even witness full-blown whines and somnambulation as a dog appears to “chase rabbits” in its sleep. It’s believed that all dogs dream as part of the normal REM sleep cycle, just as humans do. However, research suggests that dreams may be more frequent and vivid among different life stages and breeds. Puppies and senior dogs dream more vividly and more frequently than adult dogs, often moving and whimpering while at rest – something you may have already observed. This is partly due to the fact they sleep more often, though it could also be due to the state of the “pons” – the part of the brain stem responsible for regulating REM cycles and muscles during sleep. Smaller dogs also tend to have more frequent but shorter dreams than larger dogs.
Researchers hazard that dogs’ dreams, much like human counterparts, frequently concern the experiences of daily life. Doggie dreams replay sequences and events of their life during REM cycles, which science believes to be the body’s method for processing memory. This means dogs are even prone to nightmares, just like us, as a way of processing traumatic experiences. It’s best not to disturb your pup during a nightmare, as during deep REM cycles they may be disoriented and confused enough to express aggressive behavior in response.
3. Dogs are one of few species that display altruistic behavior.
In the battlefield of survival, most species are laser-focused on self-preservation and the protection of their kin. Humans, with our complex and cooperative social circles, are one of few examples of species that will behave unselfishly in service of someone else. However, researchers from the University of Vienna published a paper that suggests dogs may also display altruistic or “prosocial” behavior. In the study, dogs were given the opportunity to pull a tray containing a treat toward another dog at no benefit to itself. Some dogs acted altruistically toward other dogs, although familiarity played a big role in motivation. The research suggests that the canine pack mentality for cooperation, coupled with centuries of selective breeding for character by humans, may have cultivated a tendency for altruism among dogs.
4. All puppies are born blind AND deaf.
The fact puppies are born blind is well-known to most people, but did you realize they’re also born without the ability to hear too? As a result, puppies are entirely helpless and dependent on the mother for the first weeks of life. Most puppies are born with their eyes closed, opening them at around two weeks of age, although it can take several more weeks for eyesight to develop and mature. In much the same way, newborn pups are born with their ear canal effectively closed, meaning they hear almost nothing. The ears will open up around the same time as the eyes, however, it will take less time to reach hearing full potential. Pups should have developed keen hearing after about a week. Ultimately, dogs mature to be able to hear at double the frequency range of the average human, while also being able to hear sounds four times further away. Meanwhile, a dog’s eyesight will remain fairly limited, something they make up for in an exceptional sense of smell – more on that later!
5. Yawning is contagious—even for dogs.
There are lots of theories for why yawning is contagious among humans, often cited as a product of social mirroring, where individuals imitate the actions of others in a group. Did you know that yawning can also be contagious between humans and dogs? Try getting your dog’s attention and exhibiting a yawn to see if you can provoke a mirrored reaction. Research shows that the sound of a human yawn can trigger one from a dog. The probability increases significantly if the yawner is a person the dog knows well. A University of Tokyo study found that just over half the dogs monitored yawned after watching their owners yawn. The theory among scientists is that our close evolutionary history with canines has resulted in social mirroring crossing the species line.
6. A dog’s nose print is unique, much like a human’s fingerprint.
If your dog were to go on a series of high-stakes bank robberies, it’s the noseprint the cops would be looking for as the definitive piece of identifying information. When looking closely at a dog’s nose, you can see intricate patterns in the skin, known officially as the “rhinarium.” This print is as unique to your dog as your fingerprints are to you and will be established two months into puppyhood. Because of this, many kennel clubs use the nose print as a biometric marker to identify individual dogs. According to a suggestion in Psychology Today, you can even collect your dog’s nose print as a physical memento! Simply wipe the dog’s nose dry, dab it with food coloring, and roll a pad of paper over the curvature of the nose to leave a colorful impression of the rhinarium to frame as a keepsake. The article notes this may take several attempts based on your dog’s tendency to squirm and lick. Good luck.
7. Female dogs don’t go through menopause
Unless spayed, most female dogs reach sexual maturity after five months of age. If left “intact,” a female will go into heat twice a year – roughly the equivalent of a woman’s menstrual cycle. However, for dogs, this cycle never ends. Dogs do not go through menopause in their lifetime, meaning they are able to get pregnant at any age if not closely monitored during each biannual heat cycle.
8. Did you know that your four-legged friend has three eyelids?
You may never look at your dog the same once you learn he actually has three eyelids per eye! Like humans, dogs have an upper and lower lid, but unlike us, they have an additional eyelid called a nictitating membrane or more colloquially a “haw.” This extra layer is designed to protect the cornea from injury and spread tears across the eye. The haw is present in many other animals, including birds, reptiles, and even camels. This adaptation evolved from wolf ancestors, who were exposed to a higher risk of injury, dirt, and infection from eating animal carcasses.
You may occasionally notice the third eyelid during moments when your dog is relaxed or close to sleep. In certain breeds, such as the Basset Hound, the haw is typically more prominent. However, if you suddenly notice the constant appearance of the third lid in your dog’s eye, it could be a sign of injury or illness and may require a veterinarian’s attention.
9. A dog’s sense of smell is significantly better than ours.
It’s no secret that a dog’s sense of smell is its superpower. Smell is the main way your dog perceives the world around it. But did you know just how strong the canine olfactory sense really is? Depending on the breed, a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than that of a human. This is because dogs have around 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our paltry 6 million, while their nasal tissue is around 30 times larger than ours. The part of a dog’s brain designed to process and analyze scent is proportionally 40 larger than our own. It’s this skill that makes dogs exceptional at searching our people, drugs, and weapons. They have even been trained to sniff out cancer and coronavirus in human patients. The first case of this was reported to have been a dog who repeatedly sniffed and licked a part of his owner’s leg, until they went to the doctor and were diagnosed with melanoma, according to the Washington Post. Here’s something to warm your heart: studies have shown that when a dog is presented with its owner’s scent, the reward centers of its brain light up.
10. Despite our close bond, no one definitively understands how humans and canines came to coevolve and coexist.
Over millennia, humans have domesticated many species of animals, including all the livestock namechecked on Old McDonald’s farm. While the history of domestication for sheep and pigs has been fairly well established, there still remains much conjecture over the history and even timeline of how wolf became dog. Even basic facts have been questioned or debunked. While it was once believed all dogs shared a common ancestry in Canis lupus, or the gray wolf, ethnologists now suspect there may be multiple ancestors from across the globe feeding into the current canine gene pool. In addition, suggestions for the start of domestication range wildly from 130,000 years to 16,000 years. Part of the problem is the vast geographic spread of ancestral wolf species, which thrived across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, making it hard to pin down a singular starting place or time.
Ancient burial graves in Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Israel reveal canine skeletons ritualistically laid out alongside humans at different points in history. Today, most researchers can say for certain the relationship began while humans were hunter-gatherers. This calls into question the idea that we intentionally reared dogs as herders and guardians, instead suggesting a kind of symbiotic strategy. According to PBS “Dogs may have exploited a niche they discovered in early human society and got humans to take them in out of the cold.”
There’s still so much more to learn and so much that remains a mystery about our furry companions. One thing that is increasingly clear is the practical and emotional value they add to our lives, from detecting bombs to offering comfort on a bad day. That kind of unfailing loyalty deserves the best care in return. Explore how you can help your dog live its best life using supplement aids like CBD and CBDA.
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