9 things you didn't know about dogs, according to science © Getty Images

Nine things you didn’t know about dogs, according to science

Think you know everything about your furry friend? Think again...

Dogs are our best friends, so you’d be forgiven for thinking you know all there is to know about your pup. You’d be wrong, though: science has a lot to say about our furry friends, from whether they understand you to how they can help your health.

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So, it’s time to brush up on some amazing facts all about dogs. Oh, and don’t forget dogs really do love you.

1

Your pup may be much older than you think

The idea that dogs age seven years for every human year is a myth, scientists have claimed.

University of California researchers said they have also found puppies are middle-aged by the time they are two, although dogs tend to age more slowly than humans in later life.

By the time they get to three – and are possibly still getting away with things due to being considered young – dogs are closer in age to a 50-year-old human, according to the university’s research.

This handsome seven-year-old dog is 62 in human years © Sara Rigby
This handsome seven-year-old dog is 62 in human years © Sara Rigby

The way to calculate your dog’s age in human years, say the researchers, is through this formula: age in human years = 16 * ln(age in dog years) + 31, where ‘ln’ means the natural log.

According to this formula, the Labrador DNA was equivalent to a human in their early 40s by the age of two, rather than the 14-year-old, which the traditional formula would suggest. However, ageing slows in dogs over time, meaning that by the age of 10, a Labrador is similar to a person aged 68.

2

…But they still went through a stroppy teenage phase

Humans are not alone in going through the emotional rollercoaster of puberty. UK scientists have found dogs endure a similar phase during adolescence at around eight months of age.

They warn that puberty can be a vulnerable time for dogs, especially if they are rehomed at this age.

They analysed how obedient the dogs were before adolescence, when they were around five months old, and during adolescence, when they reached eight months of age. The researchers looked at the “trainability” of the dogs, using a questionnaire to assess whether they were able to follow commands.

Dogs go through a stroppy teenage phase too © Getty Images
Don’t withdraw emotionally when your pup is being stroppy, warns Dr Lucy Asher © Getty Images

They found dogs were harder to train when they were going through puberty and more likely to ignore commands given by their owners. This behaviour was more pronounced in dogs which felt insecure about their relationships with their caregivers, the researchers said.

The experts also found female dogs were more likely to reach puberty early if they had insecure attachments, characterised by higher levels of attention seeking and separation anxiety, to their owners.

Study leader Dr Lucy Asher said: “It’s very important that owners don’t punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away from them emotionally at this time. This would be likely to make any problem behaviour worse, as it does in human teens.”

3

They really do understand what you say to them

Who’s a clever boy? Many dog owners who talk to their pooches are convinced that their words are being understood. It turns out they may be right.

A study at Emory University has found that dogs have a basic understanding of words, are able to distinguish words they have heard before from those they haven’t, and are eager to try to understand what is being said to them.

They found that there was more activation in the auditory regions of the dogs’ brains when they reacted to the novel words, suggesting that they sensed that their owners wanted them to understand what they were saying, and were trying to do so.

4

Your best friend recognises your voice

Research shows that man’s best friend is able to identify when someone new is speaking, or when they are saying a new word. Humans can recognise who is speaking from the voice alone, and can also recognise the same word spoken by different people.

Researchers from the University of Sussex looked at whether domestic dogs could also spontaneously recognise the same word when spoken by different people, including people they were unfamiliar with.

They filmed the reaction of dogs when they heard recordings of men and women speaking a set of short words that sound similar to each other, such as had, hid, heard and heed.

Dogs can recognise familiar words, even when they don't know the speaker, study finds © Getty Images
Dogs can recognise familiar words, even when they don’t know the speaker, a study has found © Getty Images

The dogs in the study were recorded hearing the same word said by different speakers, or the same speaker saying different words.

According to the study published in Biology Letters, they were able to listen to different people saying the same word and recognise it as the same word, ignoring the differences between speakers. The dogs also discriminated between unfamiliar people by the sound of their voice alone.


5

And it’s not just your words they understand

They say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but what if it is a stray?

Scientists have examined whether the ability of man’s best friend to follow commands is innate or exclusively learned through training. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests untrained stray dogs can understand human pointing gestures.

The study showed that about 80 per cent of participating dogs successfully followed pointing gestures to a specific location, despite having never received prior training.

Researchers said this suggests the animals can understand complex gestures by simply watching humans. They added that this could have implications in reducing conflict between stray dogs and humans.

This suggests that the four-legged creatures could decipher complex gestures, researchers said.

6

Having a dog is good for your health

Our four-legged friends have long been praised for their ability to help mental wellbeing, reducing anxiety and loneliness, but less has been reported about how they might have a positive effect on physical health.

Owning a dog can improve your heart health © Getty Images
Owning a dog can improve your heart health © Getty Images

Combining patient data of 3.8 million people from multiple studies, including England, researchers found owning a dog can lead to better cardiovascular outcomes, especially for heart attack and stroke survivors who live alone.

Scientists at the American Heart Association say that, compared to those without a pet dog, owners experienced a 24 per cent reduced risk of all-cause mortality and are 65 per cent less likely to die after a heart attack. Those who had suffered cardiovascular-related issues were also 31 per cent less likely to pass away.

7

Therapy dogs in hospital can lower your anxiety

Petting a dog can help anxious patients awaiting treatment in casualty departments to relax, according to research carried out by a team from the University of Saskatchewan, in Canada.

The stress-reducing effects of therapy dogs have already been put to use in hospital wards to help patients who are recuperating or recovering from surgery. There is growing evidence to suggest interacting with the canines not only reduces a patient’s anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure, but also increases their production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of pleasure and well-being.

The 124 patients who took part in the study met the dog (a spaniel called Murphy) for between 10 and 30 minutes. The group included people who were suffering from cardiac complaints, fractures, psychiatric issues, and chronic pain.

The patients filled out questionnaires after their encounter with Murphy and the overwhelming majority of their answers suggested they felt better as a result of the meeting ­– 80 per cent of them said they felt happier and calmer.

8

Dogs can even be trained as medical professionals

As far back as the 16th Century, dogs were used as guides for blind people. Since then, they’ve come to play a much wider role in healthcare.

Today, guide dogs have been joined by medical detection dogs that have been trained to sniff out cancer, along with various other medical conditions including type 1 diabetes, severe nut allergies and Addison’s disease (a rare disorder of the adrenal glands), and soon possibly even Parkinson’s disease and malaria as well.

Previous studies have found that medical detection dogs show promise in sniffing out disease but more rigorous proof has yet to be produced. Now, after the recent completion of the first large-scale study into the abilities of medical detection dogs, that’s now changed – at least as far as dogs trained to sniff out type 1 diabetes are concerned.

9

Their noses are cold for a very good reason

A scientific study has answered a question on a lot of people’s lips about a lot of dogs’ noses: Why are they so cold?

While it has been widely assumed the phenomenon is related to body temperature regulation, researchers have now revealed it is because dogs’ noses serve as ultra-sensitive heat detectors.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers from Sweden and Hungary found when the ambient temperature is 30°C, a dog’s rhinarium – the bare end point of the nose – is some five degrees cooler. If the outside temperature is 0°C, a dog’s nose will be around eight degrees. The two factors equal out at 15°C.

© A Bálint et al. (2020) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
© A Bálint et al. (2020) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

The researchers believed such differences suggested the tip of the nose served a sensory function, and that hypothesis has been proven correct. The study showed a dog’s nose can detect often very faint heat sources – such as the presence of a small mammal – from 1.5 metres away.

The research team from Sweden’s Lund University and the Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary studied three dogs – Kevin, Delfi and Charlie – who were trained to identify which of two identical four-inch wide objects had been heated to around 12 degrees warmer than room temperature.

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