National Dog Day: Q&A with canine behaviour expert Dr. Stanley Coren

Are dogs really colourblind? Is owning a dog good for your health? UBC Psychology Professor Emeritus and canine behaviour expert Dr. Stanley Coren has the answers to just about any canine-related question you can think of. Dr. Coren is a renowned researcher and author of several books on canine behaviour, and writes a column for Psychology Today discussing the latest scientific findings about dog behaviour as well as how humans relate to dogs.

To celebrate National Dog Day, Dr. Coren answers our questions on dogs and what sparked his interest in canine behaviour.

Who are your dogs and what do you love about them?

My current dogs are a seven-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Ripley, and a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Ranger who is just a little bit past year and a half.

Ripley is my furniture dog, and acts as a “love sponge” and a highly sociable companion. His is not the brightest of dog breeds, so he has already reached the limits of his competitive ability in dog obedience.

Ranger is a retriever whose working and obedience intelligence is in the top 24 dog breeds, and so he is my competitive dog at the moment. Even though he is less than two years of age he has already won three dog obedience titles. He is the fun machine in my house, and his high-energy is the motivation for me to get out to walk him and to exercise him thus causing me to walk and exercise as well. At my age that makes him a bit of a health promoting part of my life.

Can you tell us a little known fact about dogs?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of owning dogs is often overlooked, and that is that dogs are good for your health and actually increase longevity. Perhaps just one example might help to illustrate this.

Cardiovascular disease accounts for about one third of total deaths around the world. Older individuals are the most susceptible and 90% of cardiovascular deaths occur in people age 65 or older. A research team out of Melbourne Australia looked over 4000 individuals diagnosed with hypertension (a major risk factor for heart attacks). This study monitored people for an 11 year period, and the effects were astonishing. The survival rate was improved by 26% in the individuals who currently owned a pet dog. So even if we ignore the psychological benefits and improvement in our quality of life which we get from owning a dog, the health benefits certainly justify having these four-legged companions as part of our families.

Are dogs really colourblind?

Dogs are not completely colourblind. They see the world in shades of blue, yellow, and grey. It is interesting that the most popular dog toys now are coloured red or “safety orange”, which, for the dog makes the toy and the grass that it rests on indistinguishable in colour. However, since those colours are easily seen by people, and it is people who are actually buying the dog toys, these remain the popular colours.

The secret to understanding dogs is the fact that the average dog has mental capacities which are approximately equal to a human child between two and three years of age. That gives us a clue as to how the dog’s mind works in any specific problem area. For example dogs have emotions, but since the complex social emotions, like guilt, shame, and pride, don’t reliably show up in human children until they are about four years of age, that means that your dog can be happy, sad, angry or afraid, but he will feel no guilt or shame for any transgressions that you might catch him committing.

How can you tell if someone is a “dog person” or a “cat person”?

Generally speaking dog people tend to be more extroverted, sociable, and trusting then cat people. To be happy owning a dog you have to be willing to engage in a lot of social interaction since dogs require it, while the majority of cats are perfectly happy with a mostly solitary existence. The interesting fact is that people who own both dogs and cats actually have the same personality profile as purely dog people.

Do dogs have personalities?

Not only do dogs have personalities, but psychologists have actually modified some of the same personality tests that we give to measure personality profiles in human beings so that they can be administered to dogs. It turns out that dogs have all of the same personality dimensions that people do except for one item called “conscientiousness” which has to do with neatness and orderliness.

The personalities of dogs tend to differ depending upon dog breeds. Consider, for example, the group of breeds that we call Spaniels. Most dog breeds are named after the place that they originated or the person who created the breed. Spaniels are named after Spain (español) yet none of the Spaniel breeds were created there. So where does the name come from? One aspect of the behaviour of Spaniels that particularly impressed people who encountered these dogs was their temperament. In general members of the Spaniel breeds are much friendlier and more “kissy-faced” than many other breeds. At the time these breeds were first becoming well known, it was believed that the greatest lovers and most romantic people in the world were the Spanish. So to highlight that loving temperament, which is a genetically transmitted aspect of all of these breeds, these dogs were given a label recognizing what was perceived as their Spanish temperament, if not their actual Spanish origin.

You recently published a book titled Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs, which delves into the folklore and mythology of dogs. Is there a story that stood out for you?

I suppose the one of my favorite folktales involving dogs is one which may be familiar to some people. For me it shows just how important our bond is with our dogs.

There was an old man named Sam who lived near the foothills north of Roanoke, Virginia. One afternoon he was really tired, and laid down for a nap. During that nap he had a dream, only it was way too vivid for a dream, it felt more like a “seeing” or a “vision” like the prophets in the biblical era used to have. It felt so real, that he had no doubt that this was something special.

In that vision Sam reached up to wipe his face but the hand that he found himself looking at was the hand of a younger man—his own hand from when he was young and strong and the skin wasn’t spotted with age and the veins didn’t show so clearly. He was no longer old and he felt vibrant and healthy. He noticed that he was standing in the middle of a dirt road, and the countryside looked a lot like what he remembered from wandering around near the Jackson River in the late springtime. Standing next to him was his big Blue Tick Hound, Freckles. Now that didn’t make any sense. Freckles was Sam’s companion in his late teenage years, and that well-loved dog was long gone.

Sam bent down and held the dog’s head in his hands. He felt so real, and he heard himself telling the dog “I really missed you boy. You were my best friend for so many years.” It was then that he came to the conclusion that if this was really happening then he must have “passed on” and “crossed over”. So he announced to Freckles, “It appears that I have died boy, so let’s make the best of it” and the touch of that beloved dog was so comforting that it seemed to keep him from worrying about this new and unknown situation.

It was as if the dog understood exactly what he was saying, since he flipped his head up, gave a playful little bark and made a dash to the side of the road. A moment later the dog returned with a stick which he dropped at Sam’s feet. The man picked it up and threw it and this began what turned into a lively game of fetch. Sam tossed and Freckles bounded after the stick accompanied by the sounds of canine barks and human laughter. After the process had been repeated many times, Sam sank down to knees next to the dog and announced, “I haven’t had so much fun in years.”

Freckles panted happily beside him and then Sam said “I think we both could use a cold drink of water around now.” Sam looked around and not seeing a creek or any other place to drink, he stood up, called Freckles to his side and said “Let’s head down the road and see what we can find.”

Well they hadn’t walked too far when they reached a place where the land was fenced in by a large white marble wall, elegantly built and edged in gold. A short way further along there was a gate, which looked like it was covered in mother of pearl, and next to it was a saintly looking man with a long white beard. He was wearing a long white robe and sitting at a tall desk with a number of leather bound books in front of him.

Sam stopped in front of the man and asked “What is this place?” and the man in white replied “These are the gates of heaven.”

“Wow!” said Sam, “This is wonderful. May I come in?”

The saintly man flipped a few pages and then said, “Certainly, your name is listed here.”

“Wonderful. My dog and I are kind of thirsty and really could use a drink of water.”

The man in white replied, “We can get you some cold fresh water, and even some ice if you like, however we can’t let your dog in. We don’t allow dogs or other pets in heaven.”

Sam looked down at Freckles and then at the shiny gates that had opened a crack to reveal the sight of a tall golden fountain with water bubbling over its edge. He scratched the dog’s ears and then said, “Well if my dog isn’t welcome in there then I suppose that I don’t belong there either.”

The man in white looked surprised and stood up. “Now that is a drastic decision on your part. We only offer to open the gates of heaven once for each person and so if you don’t enter at this time you won’t have a second chance.”

Now Sam had a real twinge of doubt about then—after all no one turns their back on heaven, but then he looked at his dog and knew that he couldn’t leave him now that they were together again. So he gave Freckles a pat and the two of them turned their backs on the pearly gates and moved on down the road.

The man and the dog walked on for a while. To tell the truth it wasn’t hard travelling since the day was still fine and scenery was pleasant. Then as they reached the top of a small hill they saw a farm. It had a simple white painted wood fence and a gate that was propped open. The place looked neat and well kept, if not all that prosperous. There were a couple of wooden lawn chairs under an oak tree in front of the house, and on one of them was older looking man in jeans and a denim shirt wearing a straw hat. He was reading a book.

Sam paused at the open gate and said, “Hi there. Is there any chance we could come in and get some water? My dog and I are really thirsty.”

The man looked up and smiled pleasantly. “Sure. You’re welcome here. There is no need to go all the way back to the house to get a drink.” He gestured toward a nearby shed and continued, “There’s a pump over there and some cups. There should also be a bowl for the dog.”

Sam went to the shed and found an old hand pump and used it to fill a cup with water for himself and a bowl for his dog. He then returned to the man, who gestured with his hand toward one of the other chairs. Sam sat down with the cup still in his hand. A moment later Freckles left his now empty water bowl and came over and laid his head on Sam’s knee.

“What do you call this place?” Sam asked.

“Well Sir,” said the old man, “You’ve just entered through the gates of heaven.”

“Heaven? This is very confusing. There was a man in white down the road who told me that the gates to heaven were back there.”

“You mean the place with the pearly gates and all the gold stuff inside? Well that is actually hell, and you were talking to the devil himself.”

This bothered Sam. “Well why don’t you do something to make him stop lying in order to get folks to leave the path and go into hell?”

“No need to. He serves a useful function—a sort of a screening service. Do you think that God would want to admit anybody into to heaven that was willing to leave a good friend behind while he satisfied his own wants? No Sir. You and your dog are welcome to heaven, not you without your dog.”

What led you to study canine behaviour?

I suppose that every child grows up wanting to be Dr. Doolittle. However one incident stands out for me.

When I was around six years of age, my maternal grandfather, Jacob, was listening to me babbling on about how I wanted to be able to talk to my Beagle Skippy and have him talk back to me in a way I could understand. My grandfather responded the way that he usually did when I raised a “philosophical” issue. He lit a cigar and told me a story. This time it was the story of King Solomon’s ring.

“Most people don’t know it, but King Solomon didn’t have just one ring, he had three magic rings,” he told me. “One was made of finely crafted gold and it guaranteed him victory over all of his nation’s enemies. The second finely made ring was platinum, and it served as protection against djinni and evil spirits.”

“As a reward, for his early good deeds and his promise to build a temple to God in Jerusalem, the Lord came to Solomon in a dream and offered him a gift of anything that the king wanted for himself. When Solomon answered he was given instructions on how to create a silver ring of understanding. That was marked with the King’s seal and the true name of God. To hold its magic, the maker of the ring was told that it must be started and completed on one special night. The work on it couldn’t start before the moon rose in the sky, and it had to be finished before morning. Because it was made so quickly, it wasn’t as perfect as the other two, and it looked rough and unfinished. Yet this was the ring that he most wanted since it allowed Solomon to communicate with animals and understand their thinking.”

“Now when Solomon died, God took back the two fine rings to hold them until another king as wise and devout as Solomon would need them. However the silver ring had been a personal gift to Solomon, and God felt that it wasn’t right to take back a gift. Therefore he hid the silver ring ‘in a house with many doors.’ They say that it’s still there, and a smart person who loves animals might be able to find it someday.”

I desperately wanted Solomon’s silver ring, but the story suggested that Solomon’s ring was hidden and might be lost forever. Then one evening, not long after my grandfather told me the story, my parents were listening to a radio program on which Albert Einstein, who was then a professor at Princeton University, was being interviewed. I no longer recall the main substance of that interview, but I remember Einstein saying that “Science is a house with many doors.” Suddenly it was all clear to me. The folktale contained a secret code, and now I knew where King Solomon’s silver ring was hidden. I formulated my future plans then and there. I was going to be a scientist so that I could search the house with many doors and find the ring that allowed me to understand animals. I was not searching for a physical ring, but rather a ring of facts and principles that could be held in my mind that would help me to communicate and interpret the behaviour of dogs.

Since all communication requires a speaker and a listener, and I was interested in humans communicating with dogs, that meant that I had to understand the behaviour of both creatures at each end of the leash. That meant that I had to study the behaviour of people as well as the behaviour of dogs and that pursuit is what has brought me to where I am now.

Lastly, do you have a favourite canine quote, or meme?

I suppose that I have a number of quotes that I am fond of, however one of my favorites comes from Roger Caras, an author who also served as the president of the ASPCA. It went “We give them the love we can spare, the time we can spare. In return dogs have given us their absolute all. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made.”