I have learned to accept the fact that my dogs are not only the best but also the most beautiful and smartest dogs on earth. (We all have our crosses to bear…) But it turns out that Jill and Samson share a specific kind of intelligence with other representatives of their species: “mirroring” — that is the ability to spot and subtly adjust posture, behaviour, and emotional levels to mimic those of a human companion. The theory is that this talent arose out of an evolutionary need to “foster social cohesion” between dogs and the bipeds-who-keep-throwing-away-perfectly-good-scraps.
A recent French study of 36 dogs and their owners, published in Animal Cognition, shows just how good puppers can be at anticipating the moods and needs of their people. From NPR:
[… T]he owner dog pairs experienced three testing conditions presented in random order. These were: stay-still (owner didn’t move for 10 seconds), normal-walk (owners walked at normal speed for 10 seconds), and fast-walk (owner walked fast for 10 seconds). Importantly, the dogs were off-leash and, thus, not tethered in any way to the speed of the owners. The owners were told not to look at, or talk to, their dogs — or to show any evident emotion. […]
The dogs synchronized their pace closely with their owners, speeding up when the owners walked at an unnaturally fast pace. […]
The dogs spent more time gazing at their owners in the fast-walk condition than in the other two conditions. The dogs were carrying out a form of social referencing, checking in with their owners in a condition that was unusual and, thus, uncertain for them.”
There was also an interesting breed-based difference as well: half the dogs in the experiment were shepherds, and they spent more time on average looking toward their humans. In our experiences with Jill (a Shiloh Shepherd), we find anecdotal support of the results: shepherds love to guide their humans and work with them, which involves a lot more checking in. (The other half of the dogs in the experiment were “molossoids,” or protector dogs, like Newfoundlands or Rottweilers. These types of dogs evolved to be autonomous when looking outward for threats.)
Samson is a retriever dog, a type not involved in this experiment. He’s definitely exhibited mirroring… but he’s equally content to ignore his humans completely when a chipmunk or snake darts under the porch! I’m sure that if science meets our wild card Samson one day, they’ll finally be stumped. Until then, we’ll take the responsibility of our dogs’ emotional interdependence with us to heart!