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Study confirms what owners knew all along ? your pet gets you

| Monday, Feb. 6, 2012

Kathy Reck's three Jack Russell terriers -- Vinnie, Anso and Obie -- behave like the most loyal, attentive and intuitive human companions.

"The minute I pull up here, I can hear my little ... Vinnie start carrying on," says Reck, 58, of Ambridge. She has a three-decade background working in animal welfare and dog behavior. "He is there waiting no matter what time I come in. When you're emotionally struggling with something, they know immediately."

Just like an empathetic friend, when Reck hurts, her dogs hurt, too -- in Anso's case, to a surprising extent. When a big personal upset happened in Reck's life recently, the dog became distraught and even had to go on Prozac because he was acting so differently.

"It's exactly what we do as humans -- engaging with people and showing interest," Reck says. "There are just so many amazing things, when you think about it."

Man's best friend has earned the BFF status largely for its affection and loyalty, but dogs may be even more humanlike, and know us better, than we think. Intuitive dogs not only pick up on the words we say, but they also sense our intent to communicate with them through cues like verbal words and eye contact, according to a report published in January in the Cell Press journal "Current Biology."

In their receptiveness to and perception of humans, dogs compare to children from 6 months to 2 years of age, the study found. No wonder people often treat their pooches like kids.

"Increasing evidence supports the notion that humans and dogs share some social skills," says study author Jozsef Topal of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in a written statement. Much like human infants, dogs are sensitive to communication cues.

Topal, who lives in Hungary, could not be reached for an interview. His team presented dogs with video recordings of a person turning toward one of two identical plastic pots, while an eye tracker captured the dogs' reactions. One person looked the dog straight in the eyes, and said "Hi, dog!" in a high-pitched voice. In another instance, the person gave only a low-pitched "Hi, dog" without eye contact. The study found that the dogs were more likely to follow the gaze of someone who makes eye contact and expresses an intention to communicate.

Lisa Ludvico, who teaches animal behavior courses at Duquesne University, Uptown, says that the study reflects what people observe about their tuned-in pooches.

"They can pick up a lot," Ludvico, assistant professor of biology, says. "We basically took a pack animal, and we socialized them to be a part of our pack as humans. A lot of those behaviors, (dogs) really just redirected to humans."

Think of wolves, who communicate with each other by howling and reading body languages. Domestic dogs can use the same ability with humans.

Canine perceptiveness and intuition can make them wonderful, engaging pets, Ludvico says.

"Dogs are just so accepting," she says. "Humans can do so little, and (the dogs will) just be so happy."

Dog breeds that were domesticated to work very closely with humans -- namely border collies and other herding dogs -- seem to be the breeds that are most tuned in to humans, Ludvico says.

Dogs can sense and take in both the good and bad feelings from people. Dr. Becky Morrow, an Arnold veterinarian, has observed how dogs absorb their owners' mood in the exam room.

"If the owner is in an emotional state, it can affect the dogs," she says. "If the owner is anxious about the dog getting an infection, the dog will be anxious too. ... They do respond to our emotions."

Morrow -- also an assistant professor of biology at Duquesne University -- says that if her vet staff takes the dog out of the exam room away from the upset owner, the pooch often calms down and acts differently.

Carol Stewart, a certified professional dog trainer in Greensburg, says that dogs respond to the difference in her body language and behave differently than they do with their owners.

"The science behind that is that dogs are visual learners," she says. "They communicate visually, and they learn visually. They read a lot of body language among themselves.

"Dogs have a perception of people," Stewart says.

People often read stories about dogs who have saved their owners' lives by sensing a health crisis and acting upon it. In the February issue of Woman's Day magazine, an article describes a Minnesota woman whose terrier-mix alerted her housemate after the woman had a stroke. If it weren't for the dog's frantic barking and scratching at the housemate's door, medical help wouldn't have arrived soon enough.

Eileen Mann, 58, of West View, has had numerous pets over the years -- dogs, cats and even outdoor raccoons. Her current dog -- Sage, a labrador-shepherd mix -- comes to her for comforting cuddles when Mann is feeling blue, which isn't always obvious. Sage just senses it.

"I think pets ... are much more intuitive than we give them credit for," Mann, 58, says. "I think we're the stupid ones. We don't understand them."

When Mann takes Sage somewhere, people remark about how tuned in the dog is to her owner, and how the pooch mirrors her.

"She doesn't ever take her eyes off of me," Mann says. "She watches my every move." When Mann stands up, Sage also gets up.

Though dogs don't speak, they seem to learn the meaning of many words. "I talk to her incessantly," Mann says about Sage. "She seems to get it."

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