17 Oct 2021

Do dogs really miss us when we are gone?

From Sunday Morning, 3:27 pm on 17 October 2021

Most dog owners tend to worry, at least a little, about their pets when they're left alone. But do dogs actually miss people when they are left at home to protect the family patch?

The way dogs respond to humans upon return would suggest they do miss us, but then again, dogs also know how to play dead...

However, science is now helping to find an answer to the question of whether dogs miss us.

Bunny, a sheepadoodle, has been trained to communicate using a sound board with large buttons keyed to different words. And she has started asking questions about her owner's whereabouts. (You can watch Bunny have casual conversations on her social media sites.)

Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, joins the show to look at whether dogs do miss people when they're not with them. 

A dog resting their head on a table.

Photo: Unsplash

He said Bunny is part of a study called They can talk where researchers are interested in understanding if dogs can learn symbols to communicate with people, and what it would reveal about their cognitive abilities, their feelings and their way of navigating their social lives and their lives with owners. 

The study started on a small scale but has expanded to include other dogs, cats and horses with 4000 people from 47 countries. Federico would welcome hearing from any New Zealand owners who would be interested in joining the study. 

A similar study has also been done with dolphins but the researchers were keen to move on to domesticated animals. 

He's in no doubt that Bunny is communicating. 

"To some degree Bunny is trying to talk to Alexis [her owner]. The main thing is Bunny is pushing buttons associated with concepts and she learns an association between a button and a concept."

He said it was fascinating to realise that the dogs in the study don't bark while pushing buttons because they know humans have to hear. In the same way if the button doesn't produce an association they are puzzled and keep looking at it. 

"We want to switch the tables a little bit and say if we now give them those tools can they start the conversation, can they ask for things, can they tell us what they want?

"Different dogs seem to be showing the same skills that Bunny is showing which makes me feel a little less sceptical than I was when I started this project two months ago." 

Federico said the study is looking beyond the basic communication needs of food, love, water and going outside. 

Concept of time 

One of the things they have noticed is the dogs might be communicating about time - things that happened earlier in the day or have not happened yet. 

They have also communicated about other people or animals in their household which shows they are social creatures, he said. 

"They care about others and notice when others are missing." 

Federico said Bunny presses a 'where Dad' button referring to her owner's partner but if she can widen that out to 'where cat' it will show her ability to communicate is more flexible. 

She is filmed 24/7 so the footage will show whether her communication is modelled or can be used spontaneously. 

Federico said there are already examples of dogs seeming to have cognitive ability such as Bunny using the 'where Dad' button after he returned to work after being home for a long time during the lockdown. 

"I don't want to say hey, we've found the holy grail ...you need to find every possible issue with the claim and see any possible alternative explanation for what you're seeing. 

"So we need to review all the footage we have to make sure these things were not actually taught or modelled or learned in some other way.   

"But if they are indeed spontaneously generated, as is my current impression, then they would be reflective of these abilities which I think are quite remarkable."

The ability to communicate may also mean they can convey when they are in pain, which has been observed in the study already but the researchers want to do more tests to ensure the dogs are not tricking, like children do sometimes. 

"To teach dogs body parts and to teach the concept of pain is not a particularly difficult feat so we do believe this is definitely one of the possibilities." 

Portrait of american beagle dog sits on the window and sadly looks out the window

Photo: 123RF

Federico said cats are equally good at the skills of communicating. 

"The problem is that it's very hard to get cats motivated to participate - most cats don't care."

Dogs cared more about people and liked to relate to their owners more compared with cats so it was hard to find enough of the latter to be part of the study. 

As for whether dogs miss their owners when they are away from home, he said more research is needed and not too much can be read into a dog's level of excitement when an owner comes home.