Communicating With Dogs

How do our dogs understand us so well?

Posted Mar 04, 2014

Dogs are good for us. They are used in therapy, they get us outside and walking, and they make excellent companions. But, we need to communicate with them. We need to get them to sit, stay and come. And, they need to communicate with us: to tell us when they need to go out, when they are thirsty, and when they need attention. This cross-species communication is fascinating. How are dogs and humans able to communicate?

It has long been known that dogs respond to human voice tone and gestures. Obedience classes teach “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “come,” and “heel.” And, the trainers do this by combining voice tone, gestures, and operant conditioning. For example, to teach “stay,” first, you get the dog’s attention by calling her name. Then, this is followed with an open palm gesture in front of the dog’s nose and a firm voice command of “stay.” When the dog cooperates, the owner lavishes the dog with praise and affection. Most dogs can learn this rather easily. However, dogs like humans show a wide range of individual differences. Some individual dogs are smarter, learn faster and remember better than others. And, certain breeds are known to be smarter than others.

We recently got a puppy and it has been a wonderful opportunity to observe the nature-nurture interaction evolve in another species. At eight weeks, our puppy Athena responded instinctively to a whistle but she did not understand her name or “come.” So, I whistled to get her attention, paired this with her name, gestured toward me, and said, “come.” Within days, she had learned to come to her name. This amazed me. She knew neither her name nor the command, “come,” but like a human child she was pre-wired to learn them. Her brain has an innate ability to learn human language, voice tone, and gestures. But, how much can she understand? Does she understand words or simply voice tone and gestures?

Athena learned, over the course of a year, to communicate with us, too. At first, she silently stood by the same door when she wanted to go outside. But, if we were busy we might not notice her. So she learned ways of getting our attention. At first, she randomly scratched, whimpered, or barked. Then with time, this skill became refined. She ran to the door and scratched. Her ability to communicate with us was definitely a learned and shaped skill that improved with practice.

How and why can dogs and humans communicate successfully? Is it primiarily non-verbal? Do dogs understand words? Is it due to thousands of years of breeding and training domestic dogs? In attempt to better understand these questions, a recent study examined the brains of dogs using MRI technology. Dr. Andics and her colleagues at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences compared the brains of 11 dogs and 22 humans. Both human and dog subjects were exposed to the same 200 vocal and nonvocal stimuli such as car sounds, whistles, human sounds (but not words), and dog vocalizations. The researchers found that a similar region of the brain, the temporal pole, was activated when both dogs and people heard human voices. According to Dr. Andics the brain activity in the dogs was very similar to humans with emotional sounds such as crying and laughter lighting up the auditory cortex in both. The similarity was a surprise to the researchers and the first time comparative neuroimaging study of a nonprimate species and humans.

To see the methodology and a fascinating video abstract follow this link: