Does your dog seem to have a supernatural ability to know when the kids are due back from school or your partner is about to come in from work?
We've all heard stories of dogs with an extraordinary ability to forecast when an owner is arriving home. What are these super-powers down to? Is it that the dog can sense when a family member is close or is there a more mundane answer?
In truth, the answer lies somewhere in between. Whilst dogs aren't psychic and can't foretell the future, they do have very keen senses. They are also intelligent and can link the sound of a certain car engine to the imminent arrival of a much-loved family member.
A combination of an acute sense of hearing and smell plus predictable cues enable the dog to detect a family member from some distance away. To the uninitiated, this makes the dog running to the door a few seconds ahead of an unexpected return seem most remarkable.
Signs of a Dog Sensing a Family Member
We, humans, tend to be pretty dull about working out who's who. For example, most people rely on sight, at least when someone we know is in the distance. This isn't just about recognition of facial features, because we also take into account body movement, plus the size and shape of the person (which is why we sometimes get confused by a new hairdo or a change of clothing style.) The brain adds all these things together and we recognize that person. Then when they are close enough, we recognize their voice and perhaps even their smell (hopefully, in a good way.)
Dogs are far more sophisticated about recognizing family members. They will use both their sense of smell and hearing before they can even see the family member. Indeed, the canine sense of smell is so powerful that it's equivalent to a person being able to see perfectly an object 3,000km away.
So a dog that seems to sense or predict the arrival of a family member is actually tuning into a different set of clues than us. They may be able to detect the person's scent or pick up the sound of their car engine from some distance away. In anticipation of seeing a beloved family member in the near future, the dog then runs to the door as if alerted by some supernatural power, when actually it's all about their senses.
A History of Dogs and Family Friendships
It's a heart-warming experience seeing a dog get excited about the imminent return home of a loved family member. Indeed, it's this sort of close bond between man and dog which makes them such a successful pairing. And it's also one of the reasons why the domestication of wild dogs, some 10,000 years ago, elevated canine status above that of a sheep, pig, or duck.
Whereas other animals that were of use to primitive humans had a purely functional purpose - such as to provide milk, meat, or skins - with dogs it was different. Dogs served a number of roles, from tracker to hunter, shepherd to guard dog. But more than that, they were loving, loyal, brave, and faithful, which elevated them to the role of companion and working animal.
The Science of Dogs Sensing Family Members
Every species has their strengths and specializations. Dogs already have a superior sense of smell and hearing to people, but this was further exaggerated through selective breeding. When humans wanted the ultimate tracker dog, they bred together those dogs that were best at following a scent trail. Over successive generations, they selected dogs with adaptations that enabled them to pick up and process smells extraordinarily well.
In real terms, this was down to anatomical changes such as an increasing number of olfactory receptors within the nose and more of the brain devoted to processing those signals.
Whilst we are mostly aware of the dog's outward appearance and characteristics, if they are a scenthound, then they have a very highly developed sense of smell, and so forth.
Training a Dog to Sense a Family Member
Let's say, for whatever reason, you want your dog to tell you when a partner is about to walk through the door. This is easier to do than you might think. Indeed, many pet parents have inadvertently trained their pet pal to do this without even realizing.
Training a dog to sense a family member and alert you is done with reward-based training. It's not unusual for an owner to make a big fuss of their dog after a period of separation. This is indeed a reward and makes the dog even more happy to see their owner than ever. Hence, half the battle is already won because the dog is looking forward to the family member's return.
For training purposes, you can focus the dog's mind even more, by having the returning family member reward the dog with a super-tasty treat or a favorite game, such as tug. This serves to make the dog even more interested in when that person is going to arrive back.
OK, so the dog now has an extra reason to listen out for their master. Now you make that return predictable, such as the dog gets a set of cues each time the person is about to enter. Typically this is the sound of the car engine traveling along the street, then pulling into the drive (to a dog, all car engines sound different, and they can distinguish the one belonging to a family member.).
Then there are other sound clues such as the slamming of the driver's door and the jingle of door keys. The dog's acute senses can pick this up as a predictor that the owner is about to come home. This is why some dogs seem to have a super-sense for family members, and will go to the door even though the owner is early back from work.
In summary, make the returned person's pattern predictable with audible cues for the dog. Then, be sure to reward the dog big-time when they go to greet them.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 07/19/2018, edited: 04/06/2020