How Dogs Show Us What Is Happening in the World

Dogs use a behavior very similar to a child's pointing to show us things.

Posted Aug 20, 2015

Sometimes it is the observation of small, everyday behaviors which leads to an increased understanding as to how dogs think and behave. I was reminded of this when a friend gave me a gift. It was a boxed set of selected episodes from the "Lassie" television show, which ran from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s, while the handsome Collie shared adventures with several different families in different settings and situations. It was a warm lazy afternoon so I poured us each a beer and the two of us sat down to look at a randomly selected episode and watch my favorite dog star perform.

At one point in the episode Timmy got into trouble. Lassie ran off to get him some help, and in the next scene we got to see Lassie running up to June Lockhart, who was playing Timmy's mother. Lassie looked directly at her, then turned and looked in the direction where Timmy could be found. When she did not seem to respond the dog looked at the woman again, making clear eye contact, and then gave a quick bark before looking back in the direction where her little master. Next the dog repeated the behaviors, even taking a few quick steps toward that path that she wanted the woman to follow. Timmy's mother eventually got the idea and raced out of the kitchen to go help save her son.

My friend, who is an astute psychologist, but who does not work with dogs or any other animals, gave a little chuckle and commented, "It would be nice if dogs actually acted like that. What the director is having the dog do in this film is the behavioral equivalent of a child who can't verbalize what the problem is, but rather tries to attract the attention of an adult by at least pointing in the direction which he or she wants the adult to go to. But that of course is beyond the capability of a dog. Dogs use communication to tell us how they're feeling, and although they're good at expressing their emotional states (tail wags, growls, whimpers and that sort of thing) they certainly don't engage in referential communication where they tell us about interesting things in the environment."

I was impressed that my friend picked up on the significance of the dog's behavior; however, as I later explained to him, it is actually true that dogs naturally behave exactly like this, and it is the canine way of "showing" us what is happening in a dog's world. As far as I can determine the first scientific discussion and demonstration of this kind of behavior appeared in the journal Animal Cognition*. It was a report by a team of researchers headed by Adam Miklósi from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös University in Hungary.

The study involved 10 dogs and the setup was fairly simple. It took place in a room which the dogs had been familiarized with. The room contained three bowls which were scattered around in different directions and placed on bookshelves or other surfaces which were well above the dog's reach. Somebody (a person who the dog already knows) next enters the room and hides either some food or a favorite toy in one of those three bowls and then leaves. The owner then enters the room and the researchers record what happens next.

Typically the dog will engage in a behavior where they attempt to make eye contact with their owner and once that is done they then look in the direction where the interesting stuff is. Sometimes the dogs will make a sound, a bark or a whimper either when gazing directly at their owner or at the desired object. The sound seems to have the same function as someone saying "Hey look over here!" Gazing at the owner is a means of making sure that the dog has the human's attention, and gazing toward the interesting material is then the equivalent of pointing.

Of course the researchers introduced a number of careful controls, since it could just be the case that the dogs are simply staring at something which they want with no particular intention of communicating. If that were the case, then when the owner was not in the room, the dogs should continue to stare at the interesting location. However it turns out that the dogs look at the desirable location a lot less when the owner is not there. It is principally when their owner is in the room that the dog's behavior becomes this alternating gaze-at-the-person-and-then-the-object, which then is repeated until they get some kind of response.

The interesting aspect of this behavior is that dogs do not have to be taught it. It seems to appear naturally. Also human beings, without any deliberate instruction, seem to recognize the significance of this sequence of actions and we do tend to respond to it by going to check out the location that the dog is gazing at. The researchers suggest that perhaps the reason why this behavior is so common in dogs may have to do with the intervention of humans. These investigators suggest that, perhaps during the process of domestication, we have systematically selected dogs with better communication abilities. A dog who can tell us where there are things which interest him, or which he considers to be important, is a more useful companion and is easier to get along with. So the dogs that have this ability will be cared for a little bit better and will more likely be the ones selected for breeding. That means that if this behavior is genetically controlled it will become more prevalent in successive generations of dogs.

In any event, it appears that the sequence of actions that we were observing in Lassie, was not simply part of a "dance" concocted by Lassie's trainer's and the film's director, but rather was an example of a common way in which dogs engage in "showing" us what is going on in the world.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; 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

Data from: A. Miklósi, R. Polgárdi, J. Topál and V. Csányi (2000).Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: an experimental analysis of “showing”  behaviour in the dog. Animal Cognition, 3, 159-166.