When I get home from work my dog is always at the door, waiting for me. Friends of mine report the same phenomenon. Do they spend all day at the door waiting for us? Maybe, but probably not. It’s probably the result of associative learning.
Dogs and humans have been a double-bill for tens of thousands of years. Dogs help the disabled, go to war with us and – of course – are often prominently featured in our domestic life. One reason dogs have made such good partners is that they are incredibly good at picking up on small environmental cues, such as body language or specific sounds that we might not notice. Heck, we now know that dogs can even tell when we’re happy.
While there aren’t many studies on how dogs know when their masters are coming home, there are a number of hypotheses that hinge on associative learning and dogs’ sensitivity to environmental cues.
For example, a dog can learn to recognize the sound of a specific car and anticipate the arrival of the person associated with that car (such as the dog’s owner). It has learned that a specific sound is associated with you coming home (thus, associative learning). In other words, the sound of the car serves as a trigger, which sets the dog’s ritual welcoming behavior in motion – sitting at the window, dancing around in a circle, etc.
But what if you don’t drive a car? Well, other triggers could be related to time. For example, if you take the subway and usually get home at 5:30, the dog may be triggered by the local bus that drives by every day at 5:25.
And, of course, it’s also possible that your dog just spends a lot of time sitting at the window when you’ve been gone for a while.
Dogs’ sensitivity to environmental cues demonstrates itself in other ways as well. For example, some dogs will become restless in advance of thunderstorms – well before you or I will notice that dark clouds are starting to gather. This may be because they can pick up on changes in barometric pressure or ozone – or that they can pick up on the ultra-low frequency rumbles that signal the approach of a storm (they can hear frequencies that humans can’t).
As to whether dogs can predict other natural phenomena, like earthquakes, the jury is definitely still out. There is some evidence that some dogs are sensitive to related environmental cues – but no one really knows. At most, animal behavior researchers concede that it is possible.
Lastly, I’ll relate something from my own experience: you can teach an old dog new tricks. That’s a fact.
Note: Many thanks to Dr. Barbara Sherman, clinical associate professor of veterinary behavior at NC State, for taking the time to talk to me about dogs and dog behavior. Any errors in the above post are mine, and mine alone.