Let me tell you the story of clever Hans. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there was a horse called Hans. He was said to have magical powers. He could do math. Now for those of us who struggle with our regular curriculum, we know that having math ability is a bit magical. Hans could multiply and divide and tell dates. When asked a question he would tap his hooves to indicate the numeric value of the response. And people applauded in awe of Hans.
While this might sound like a fairytale, it’s actually a true story from the early 1900s. But let me placate the logical mind right here and reassure you that this was no magic. A psychologist sorted this whole mystery out by conducting a series of experiments. He demonstrated that Clever Hans was not really a mathematical genius, lest you despair that horses discovered zero. Here is the redeeming explanation: when the person presenting him with these mathematical puzzles did not know the answer Clever Hans did not seem so clever at all. He failed to answer the questions. It was eventually revealed that Clever Hans was tapping his hoof and keenly observing the person who posed the question to know when to stop tapping. The person who posed the question would give signals even without realising it – a slight stiffening of the muscles, some dilation of the pupils etc. Clever Hans was then proclaimed not to be so clever.
But that is not really the right conclusion. Was Clever Hans really not clever? In today’s age, when we don’t notice our co-worker, who works beside us day in and day out, having a nervous breakdown, is it not truly clever when one can notice such subtle body language? In an age where marketers and advertisers are tripping over each other to decode the nuances of human emotion, an animal, apparently of lower intellect, is cracking it with ease. Is that not beyond clever?
Well it is. That’s what animals are. They are hyper alert to us. Dogs in particular evolved to be that way. They learned to read their own kind. But for their own survival they learned to read us too. And they were good students and learned well. They get us, to the last detail. It’s not just your imagination when you think your dog knows that you are sad, even when you are still struggling to figure out what mood you are in. It’s not your imagination when your dog seems to slink away when your phone conversation is getting heated. Your dog is perhaps as clever, if not more, than Clever Hans, because the survival of his species depended on how well he understood YOU! But here’s the rub – a dog is a being with perception genius but the cognitive ability of a two-year-old child (because today we know that’s the neurological composition of a dog’s brain).
So basically, when you walk into your home, burdened by your workday, and your dog perceives your mood, you have offloaded your office politics on a two-year-old child. So your dog does experience the anxiety of a child who watches her parent freaking out. This whole thing is hard to understand, partly because of its unfamiliarity to our species and partly due to the enormity of the emotional burden we are putting on the shoulders of another species. But we chose to include canines in our households and we hence cannot, in our true conscience, enjoy the luxury of not thinking about this.