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What Science Had to Say about Dogs in 2020

My dog was my mood lifeguard in 2020, lifting my spirits whenever I found myself drowning in exhaustion or frustration. Her clumsy, big-dog-with-little-brain antics; squishy, adorable face; and fluffy, stompy feet never failed to make me smile. I needed her as much as she needed me to hand her more carrot treats.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Research has supported the idea that pets can benefit a person’s mental health. It might be one of the reasons why pet adoptions and fosters boomed during the pandemic as people sought a four-legged friend to replace their suddenly quiet social lives.

Any pet owner will say they have a connection with their pet, whether it’s a lizard, bird, dog, or cat. But since I’m the biased owner of a mutt, let’s talk about dogs. They’re known as “man’s best friend” because of how long our species have known each other. Archaeologists have found evidence of dogs chilling with humans for at least 15,000 years. Almost 49 million households in the U.S. own at least one dog, making them the most popular pet to own. (Cats come in second with about 32 million households owning at least one.)

Needless to say, mankind loves their dogs. Yet we’re still discovering new things about our furry friends all the time. As we slide into a new year, let’s look back at some facts that science has revealed about dogs in 2020.

Your dogs would rescue you… if they knew how

Dogs can do more than save Christmas—they can also save you. But there’s one big thing that might be keeping them from becoming Lassie: They don’t know how to do it.

In April 2020, researchers with Arizona State University published a study in PLOS ONE that explored dogs’ propensity to save their owners. The scientists taught the dog owners how to convincingly act like they’re in distress and trapped them in boxes. Then, their dogs were released and observed.

It turns out that a good one-third of pooches successfully came to their owners’ rescue. It might seem like a small amount, but the authors of the study believe that the number should actually be higher. The pool of rescuers mostly consisted of dogs that already knew how to open the box due to earlier tests. The other dogs that didn’t know how to open the box tried, but ultimately failed to save their owners. And it made them really upset.

“What’s fascinating about this study is that it shows that dogs really care about their people,” said canine researcher Clive Wynne in a press statement. “Even without training, many dogs will try and rescue people who appear to be in distress—and when they fail, we can still see how upset they are. The results from the control tests indicate that dogs who fail to rescue their people are unable to understand what to do—it’s not that they don’t care about their people.”

Negative reinforcement can traumatize dogs

Sometimes it can be really tempting to yell at your dog. We’re two different species; we don’t always understand each other’s habits and instincts. But recent research cautions against giving in to the urge to shout at your pup; negative reinforcement like shouting, “physical manipulation” of the dog, and yanking on the leash can have lifelong negative impacts.

In a study published in December 2020 in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers confirmed that companion dogs that went through aversive training had increased levels of stress even when they were relaxing at home. They were also far more cautious about investigating new objects compared to dogs trained with positive reinforcement.

Using aversive training methods “compromises the welfare of companion dogs in both the short and long-term,” wrote the authors. Treats and other non-aggressive training methods are preferable whenever possible.

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We’ve been miscalculating dogs’ ages

I’ve always been told that one human year was equivalent to seven dog years. Well, it turns out that’s not an accurate way to measure a dog’s age.

A group of researchers decided to find the perfect formula that could calculate the true age of a dog. The resulting formula, published in the journal Cell Systems in July 2020, is more accurate, although definitely not as easy to remember as “one year = seven dog years.”

The magic formula is: 16 ln(dog age) + 31 = age in human years.

As an example, let’s use Google’s calculator to figure out the equivalent human age of a 15-year-old dog. That means we pull up the calculator and press the “ln” function. Then, type in the dog’s age, which is 15, and hit the equal button. Multiply the result by 16. Lastly, add 31.

16 ln(15) + 31 = 74.33 human years old.

This formula doesn’t only help us understand dogs’ ages; it helps us understand how quickly they age in their early life before slowing down. Thanks to this formula, we can presume that a 1-year-old dog is equivalent to a 31-year-old human; a 2-year-old dog is equal to a 42-year-old human. In contrast, a 6-year-old dog and a 7-year-old dog are equivalent to a 59-year-old human and a 62-year-old human. The difference in age between the two is less prominent than when the dog was younger.

Teen dogs are just like teen humans

If you’ve raised a dog from puppyhood, you’ve likely experienced a dog’s teen years. It happens when they’re around eight months old, and can be characterized as a period that’s fraught with disobedience. Maybe you joked about your dog going through puberty at the time.

Well, it turns out that’s not a joke. In May 2020, a study published in Biology Letters became the first to find evidence of adolescent behavior in dogs. Led by an animal behavior researcher from Newcastle University in the UK, Dr. Lucy Asher, this study pinpointed a period in dogs’ lives where owners and trainers reported they were the least cooperative.

But why bother figuring this out? Here’s the short answer: Many dogs are surrendered or rehomed at this troublesome age.

“This is a very important time in a dog’s life,” Dr. Asher explained in a news release. “This is when dogs are often rehomed because they are no longer a cute little puppy and suddenly, their owners find they are more challenging and they can no longer control them or train them. But as with human teenage children, owners need to be aware that their dog is going through a phase and it will pass.”

Going through the process of being rehomed can affect their behavior as adults as well — just like humans. “It’s very important that owners don’t punish their dogs for disobedience or start to pull away from them emotionally at this time,” said Dr Asher. “This would be likely to make any problem behavior worse, as it does in human teens.”

We learned a lot about dogs in 2020, but we still have a ways to go in fully understanding them. Questions about their capacity to feel empathy or the limits of their intelligence are still up in the air. There’s no urgency to figure out what our canine companions are thinking, though. As with thousands of years past, our pooches will still be by our side as we puzzle them out, tilting their heads as they wordlessly demand treats in exchange for their attention.

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Written By

Video games and technology writer for The Gist. A simple soul that loves homemade pizza and happy dogs.

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