SOU has gone to the dogs

Although they're only as smart as a 2-year-old human, dogs "get" people, understand about 165 words, have the emotional development of a teenager and are so aware of subtle human body signals that we think they're psychic.

In short, dogs bond so eagerly to us and show us such loyalty that we call them "man's best friend" and grieve their inevitable early passing as if they were family members, says psychologist Stanley Coren, who will deliver two lectures on dogs, on Feb. 24-25, at Southern Oregon University.

His talk at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 24, in the Art Building auditorium, is titled "Dogs and Humans: A Common History and a Bond."

His talk at 3 p.m., Friday, Feb. 25, in Room 118 of the Science Building, is "A Dog's Eye View of the World," which explores canine perception and thinking. Both talks are free and open to the public.

Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, writes a blog for Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner) and is the author of many books, including "Born to Bark," "The Modern Dog" and "How Dogs Think."

His first talk explores the impact of dogs on the development of modern civilization. For instance, Alexander the Great's beloved war dog, Peritus, turned the tide in an early battle by attacking a war elephant of Persian emperor Darius, (he bit the beast's lip) saving Alexander's skin and allowing him to conquer the known world.

Dogs were key to the American Revolution, Wagner's music, Napoleon's downfall and Picasso's ground-breaking art, says Coren.

A lifelong dog-lover, Coren wanted to get into dog psychology early in his career but there was no such field. So he settled for human neuropsychology and explored the bonds between the two species.

"Dogs are wonderful at reading body language," Coren says. "They are descended from wolves — and wolves, when they spotted prey, couldn't bark about a deer in the distance or they would have lost their lunch. So they signaled each other — and we humans give all kinds of signals. They pick up on our intent through where we are looking and changes in our posture. That's why people think they're psychic." Humans are extremely visual, but while dogs can see adequately, he says, their world is about their nose, which has 225 million receptors, about 50 times what we have.

"We can look at a table and see its surface — a book, a pen and all the things on it. They just see the whole image, in blues and yellows, and notice only if there's motion," he says.

"Smell is different. We walk into a kitchen and smell chili. They walk in and smell all the components, the beans, the peppers, the tomatoes, everything."

Dogs have wet noses for a reason — and that's because molecules of stuff they need to smell stick better to wet noses, he says.

Dogs aren't good at seeing what's still, which is why rabbits and other prey freeze if a dog is near. But, he notes, "they have a wonderful calculus, from half a mile away, of where the rabbit is going to be in a few seconds."

Certain types of dogs fit certain types of human personalities, he says. Assertive humans go for terriers, as evidenced by Fala, the Scottish terrier beloved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, presidents have had more terriers than any other dog, he notes.

Sociable sorts of humans like the sporting breeds, such as labs, he says.

Serious dog-lovers will swear that dogs can think, but the plain truth is they have the brains of a 21/2-year-old, at best, with the "emotional intelligence" of a human teen, so they're keenly aware of relationships, who's sleeping with whom and who's moving up in the pack.

If your dog seems to feel guilt and shame about soiling your new, white carpet or wolfing down the "doggie bag" in your car (which you wanted for your own lunch), that's not really guilt, says Coren; it's fear — dread of your anger and shouting. Guilt is a human emotion learned at age 4. Dogs just don't do guilt.

"Dogs can learn their name and other human words but," he jokes, "a lot of them think their name is 'no.' "

When it comes to training a dog, many people debate which works better — rewards or discipline.

"Rewards work a lot better," he says. "Everything you do affects your dog's emotional state. They learn through repeated experience and association. They come to fear everything associated with negative emotions. Positive emotions are a lot simpler and have better consequences."

Dogs have come to fill an enormous role in our lives because we've bred them for 14,000 years and selected traits of empathy (with humans) for survival, he says. We also selected dogs that bark a warning when strange or predatory creatures approach (wolves don't bark much).

Being at the level of a 2-year-old, a very endearing age for humans, people talk to dogs essentially as if they are young children. Which helps explain why people bond so deeply with their animals.

"We become dependent on them. The grieving for them (at death) can be quite deep," he says.

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