Dogs can read us like a book — if the book is about dog food or our disappointment in them for knocking over the garbage or our pleasure at seeing them come bounding toward us like a large, hairy substitute child.
Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare, the researchers who wrote “The Genius of Dogs,” point out that dogs are unique in that respect. They say that “Dogs have evolved a specific kind of intelligence — the ability to flexibly read human gestures.”
Woods and Hare, in an article for LiveScience.com, note that we and the other animals all have our strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a bat, one of our fellow mammals, can fly all by itself, but humans can’t fly without an airplane and a cabin attendant.
The lucky bats can fly without eating those airplane packets of dry snacks that taste like salted tumbleweed twigs. When the attendant hands me one I can’t decide whether to eat the contents or the package.
I assume Woods and Hare would agree that much of the communication between dogs and humans has been developed over the ages through evolution. The genes of dogs and humans who worked well together were more likely to endure than the genes of moody dogs and humans who just can’t work with anybody. (Something like that is going on today in the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Woods and Hare tell us that a standard IQ test of humans “does not even come close to measuring a person’s full capabilities or entire skill set.” The writers also note that we don’t have a standardized test of empathy, reading the feelings of others.
We are all brilliant and stupid in diverse ways. For instance, I know a lot of writer stuff like how to tell you one of my little stories each week, but I have no idea how a computer, an eagle’s eye or a human brain works.
I can do some things that some of you can’t — like looking at a couch and telling you, within an inch, whether it will fit in that alcove over there under the picture of dogs playing poker. It’s called spatial skills. I have a space brain, a brain that helps me move the furniture. But I don’t have the kind of space brain that lets me understand how scientists can get an astronaut to the moon.
Similarly, my mother didn’t know how to repair a refrigerator but she could walk into a room full of people and spot a depressed stranger nobody else noticed. She would head straight for that troubled person, strike up a conversation, listen to the guy’s troubles and cheer him up.
She had only a tenth-grade education, but when it came to comforting people, the doctor was always in.
Conversely, the geniuses who design these wonderful computers and know precisely how they work are pinheads when it comes to things like writing simple instructions for laymen on how to use a computer.
And now they are rapidly replacing conventional tactile keyboards with those flat, error-prone pictures of keyboards that are taking over the devices that writers, scholars, teachers, secretaries and seniors of all kinds prefer to use.
I keep hearing every other year that the desktop computer is doomed. And it probably is, thanks to the pinheads. But we should pity the poor fools because, while they understand computers, they don’t always understand common computer users.
Meanwhile, it is a compliment rather than an insult to assert that my mother and dogs understood each other. Some mothers and some dogs can read a person’s pain across a crowded room. And that’s why we love them both.Bill Hall can be contacted at email@example.com or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501