We had the poodles at the park yesterday; we were slowly walking around the field letting Tilley stretch her legs and go after her ball a bit when I saw a poodle friend in the distance. We are accustom to meeting at this park and the dogs always look forward to a greeting. This particular dog is a very young exuberant gal and her greetings resemble that of a tornado. She is very submissive and is typically on the ground by the time she gets to Luke; she is simply adorable. As she whirled around I hovered over Tilley; not wanting her to take an impact. But the youngster steered clear of Tilley seeming to know; did she sense that Tilley was somehow different. I had met this same dog last week when I only had Tilley with me; she had displayed the same contrasting behavior then. When she greets Luke it is a rough and tumble greeting, very exuberant.
I often hear stories of dogs exhibiting completely opposite behavior which is typically not seen when they encounter an elderly, very young or fearful person. The dog seems to understand that they need to change their behavior for this particular person. Can dogs sense emotion? Do they understand our age and our slightest physical handicaps? This question is quite controversial but those who have witnessed it firsthand are clear on their answer.
My husband is dealing with kidney stones right now; for anyone who has had these little buggers you know that they are extremely painful, comparable to childbirth. On Saturday he had a very bad time and paced around hoping that the pain would stop before we headed to the hospital. Watching the dogs; especially Luke, it was clear that he knew something was up. As you know he is my constant shadow; but he never left his Dad’s side. He stood inches from him; tail at half mast (which was also very strange) with a small wag every couple of minutes. This was very much out of the ordinary for Luke; he was quite subdued. And when my husband lay on the living room floor both poodles lay by his side; watching him with concern. Then Jessie approached him slowly; her face directly at his height and only inches away, she stared at him until he acknowledged her presence. There she stood; just staring.
It is fair to say that we give off an abundance of information via scent. Emotion causes the secretion of hormones in our body; depending on the current influencing emotion we will emit a wide variety of scent. Our dogs can smell 50-100 times more accurately than we can; which makes it easy to consider the idea that they can indeed smell what we feel. As our emotion change so does our body chemistry and our dogs can pick up on this.
But it goes beyond only scent for a dog; as dogs rely strongly on body language as well. Tilley’s posture is very non-threatening; she has always had a very neutral stance and this is one of the many reasons that she accompanied me on numerous fear and aggression cases over the years. Now well into her senior years she is even less threatening; even fragile in her posture and other dogs seem to clearly understand this. Elderly people who may be unsteady on their feet also give off body language; often scary for a dog who has not witnessed it before. But many dogs take this as a cue to calm down and settle; they may even lay down on their own.
So as we deal with our day to day lives and react as humans do; our dogs are constantly watching. My husband was acting very out of the ordinary which my dogs picked up on immediately. He most likely smelled very different; of course we are not capable of distinguishing this but it is nothing for our dogs. Dogs are being used to scent cancer cells; they can alert people to an oncoming seizure and pinpoint a body within a massive pile of rubble. It would make sense that they can pick up on our subtle emotional changes through scent. Accompanied with their amazing ability to communicate through body language; they are able to visually extract the smallest of facial expression and body posture. So the answer to the question; “do they know?” Of course they know.