Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Can We Communicate with Dogs Using Photos and Replicas?

Dogs understand that replicas and photos can be symbols for real objects.

Every now and then during everyday activities I am reminded of the similarity between the thinking processes of human two to three-year-old children and those of dogs. This time it happened when I was playing a game with my 3 ½-year-old granddaughter who had received a dollhouse, with all of the furniture, as a gift. It was basically a "find the object" game. I would hold up a little item, perhaps a toy chair, and ask her "Can you find a…" and then point to the chair without saying the name of the object. Her task was to run to the dollhouse and find a similar item and bring it back to me. She did that very well.

 I then made the game more complicated. Using the same toy catalog that we used to purchase the furnishings for her dollhouse I now began to use the pictures in it to communicate what I wanted. So now, if I wanted her to find the toy chair, I would point to the photograph of it in the catalog and ask, "Can you find this?" Her performance slowed down quite a bit, and once or twice she had to come back and look at the photograph again. Once, for a toy bed which was shown in the photo in a side view, as opposed to the way in which she had it in the dollhouse, where the foot of the bed was pointing outward, she found the task too difficult and I had to help her find it.

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A while later it dawned upon me that I had just repeated in experiment which had been conducted by Juliane Kaminski and a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig Germany. Their research was published in the journal Developmental Science. They knew the data which indicated that it is usually not until after a child's second or third birthday that they can infer what an adult wants when they are shown a replica of an item as an example. They also knew that nonhuman animals find this to be very difficult, if not completely impossible. However dogs seem to be a special case. For example, dogs respond to many communication gestures, such as pointing to objects or locations, and they do this even better than linguistically trained chimpanzees. So it seemed worthwhile to test and see whether dogs acted more like young children when interpreting photographs and replicas, or if they have the same low level ability to do so that other animals have.

 Using a group of five Border Collies (everybody's favorite dog for intelligence research since they are so bright) the testing was set up in two rooms. The dogs had already been trained to understand the command "Bring it here" accompanied by a pointing gesture to indicate which object they were supposed to fetch. Next, in one room a set of eight children's and dog toys was laid out. In the other room the dog was shown either an exact copy of the object that the experimenter wanted, or a miniature copy of the object (which could be made out of different materials than the actual target), or a life-size photograph of the object desired. The experimenter then showed the dog the replica or the photo, and then gestured in the direction of the other room along with the command for the dog to retrieve it.

 The results were remarkably similar to what I obtained with my granddaughter in our dollhouse game. If the dog was shown either an identical object, or a miniature replica, most of them were able to recognize that it was being used as a means of communication, and they would go into the other room and retrieve the correct item with a respectable degree of accuracy overall. The performance of the dogs was superior to that of other animal species tested in comparable settings, including some chimpanzees.

 For the photographs, however, the pattern looked different. Here only two out of the five dogs responding reliably by retrieving the object in the picture. However a subsequent experiment showed that dogs are able decipher information from photographs. In this case the dog was shown a same-size photograph of an object and told to bring it. Now the array of objects in the next room had been changed to a mixture of types, namely a collection of real objects (those portrayed in the photographs) and actual photographs of those objects mounted on small stands so the dogs could easily perceive and pick them up. One of the dogs seemed to have "broken the code" and almost always brought the real object rather than the photo of the object. The other dogs did use the information in the photos they were shown, however they were just as apt to bring the identical photograph back as they were to bring the object back. It was almost as though the object and its image were interchangeable in the dog's mind.

This research continues to demonstrate that the similarity between the thought and behavior patterns of dogs and those of young children is striking. I am not saying that dogs are merely four-footed children in fur coats, but rather that the behaviors of canines and young humans, especially in terms of their communication abilities, clearly parallel each other (click here for more about data on this). In the case of my granddaughter one such parallel caused me to laugh. When I pointed to the catalog picture of a dog, she raced over to the dollhouse to retrieve its little plastic likeness, and then stood there with it in her hand and proudly announced "woof-woof!"

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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