The arf of reading people

Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon
I’m a woman who judges potential boyfriends by whether dogs like them. My friends think I’m crazy, but I’m convinced that my dog picks up on who a person really is. Is there any research on whom animals are drawn to? – Muttperson

Dogs have proved useful for sniffing out drug stashes, dead bodies and IEDs. How great would it be if you could dispatch your German shepherd Tinker Bell into a bar or party to sniff out the human minefields? “Naw … skip this dude. Serious intimacy issues.”

People will swear that their dog is a great judge of character – focusing on the, oh, two times he growled at someone they despise but conveniently forgetting all the times he snuggled up to their sociopathic ex. The reality is, research does not support dogs (or even chimps) having what they’d need to assess a person’s character – a sophisticated cognitive ability humans have called “theory of mind.”

Theory of mind describes being able to guess the mental states of others – to infer what they’re thinking or intending. For example, when you see a man across the street get down on one knee in front of a woman, theory of mind leads you to figure he’s about to ask her something – and it probably isn’t, “Could I borrow a pen?”

That said, the ballsy little purse Cujo that growls at some Mr. Skeevy probably isn’t doing it out of the blue. Dogs do seem able to read even subtle aspects of human body language – like our tensing up upon approaching somebody we dread talking to – and they may respond in kind.

However, dogs’ perception of people and the world is dominated by their exceptionally powerful sense of smell – estimated to be between 10,000 and 100,000 times more powerful than ours, according to anthrozoologist and Dog Sense author John W.S. Bradshaw.

In other words, though dogs can’t read a person’s mind, they may be able to smell what’s on it – or rather, the chemical messengers released by what’s on it. For example, doggy-cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz explains in Inside of a Dog that adrenaline (triggered when a person’s afraid or angry) “is unscented to us, but not to the sensitive sniffer of the dog.”

Additionally, Bradshaw points out that the types of people dogs are socialized with – women, men, men with beards, people wearing different kinds of clothes – make a difference in whom dogs snuggle up to and whom they snarl at.

So, no, your dog is not a leg-humping background-checker. But she can help you see something important about men – if you look at how a potential boyfriend treats her: with patience or annoyance. And as I often advise, it’s also important to put some time (and a lot of observation) between thinking a guy is really awesome and seeing whether he actually is. It’s tempting to believe you’ve found everlasting love, just as it’s tempting to believe that your dog is some sort of crystal ball for reading character – and not responding to how some guy just kneaded all the stuff together for homemade liverwurst and then wiped his hands on his pants.

© 2018, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show:

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