Why Excited Dogs Don't Communicate Very Well

An owner's behavior may have an influence on a dog's ability to communicate.

Posted Nov 18, 2020

Piqsels / Public Domain
Source: Piqsels / Public Domain

New research indicates that by encouraging our dogs to give us information we may actually be impairing their ability to communicate with us.

Let's set up the situation so that you know what kind of communication we are talking about. You might remember seeing films starring Lassie, or some other heroic dog, in which she runs up to get help from someone. First she looks at the individual (who she hopes will help), then she barks. Then she looks in the direction where the problem is and often runs a few steps in the direction she wants to show, then looks back, barks again and moves away again. She continues to repeat this sequence of behaviors the process until the person finally follows her and is led to the well that Timmy has fallen into.

Technically this is a form of communication called "showing." It has two components. The first is attention-getting — for Lassie in this scenario it's barking, but it could be whimpers or whines. The second component is directional, trying to indicate where something of interest is located. For humans we would simply point in the appropriate direction, but since dogs don't have hands, the substitute action is what is called "gaze alternation" which involves the dog repeatedly looking between the target of interest and the person they are trying to communicate with, perhaps with an occasional dash in that direction.

It's important to emphasize that there have been a number of studies which have investigated showing behavior as an unlearned form of communication. All of them have shown that dog owners can overall successfully use the signals provided by their dogs to find hidden objects. This means that showing behavior provides a powerful example of successful dog-human communication.

A team of German researchers led by Melanie Henschel of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena decided to look at showing behavior in dogs, and found that the behavior of owners influenced how well the dogs could communicate this kind of information.

The basic experimental setup involved testing 30 pairs of dogs and their owners. While the human waited in a different room, a researcher entered the testing room where the dog was. He then showed the dog one of its favorite toys and, with a bit of fuss and flair to make sure that the dogs were paying attention, placed it in one of four boxes. Next, when the owner returned to the room, the dog's behaviors were recorded as he tried to show his human where the toy was hidden. If the dog was successful in showing his owner the location of the toy, the two of them got to play with it for a little bit.

The experimenters had two different setups. In one, the four boxes were fairly close together which required some precision on the part of the dog in showing the location of the toy. The other was an easier task because the boxes were more widely spaced, meaning that the location information could be conveyed with less ambiguity and with simpler movements.

Now suppose that you are in that situation. You know that your dog knows where the target object is, but he's not showing you clearly enough so that you can figure out the correct location. The most common thing that dog owners do is to try to encourage the dog. When the owner uses their voice to encourage their dog to find the toy, it's obvious that the dog almost always puts more effort into their showing actions. Unfortunately it appears that this extra arousal often leads to decreased accuracy.

The authors report: "Results suggested that owners did indeed influence how correctly their dogs showed but not necessarily in the most obvious way. We found that owners overall negatively impacted their dog’s proportion of correct showing. In other words: the more owners pushed their dogs to show them the hidden toy, the less they showed the correct box and the more they showed just any box."

One possibility for this deterioration in the dog's showing ability has to do with the well-established psychological principle that there is an optimal level of arousal or excitement for the performance of any cognitive task. If arousal is too low, performance is poor. If arousal level is too high, then it is also the case that the performance may be poor. You can see that in the figure below.

SC Psychologicl Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychologicl Enterprises Ltd.

Now in the case in which the dog is already energized and aroused — for example, in this situation where he has been shown a favorite toy and is anticipating the possibility of some play — we are already starting with an aroused dog. That suggests that any additional encouragement is apt to lead to diminished precision in the dog's performance, as can be seen in this figure.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

So if the dog is really interested enough in a situation so that he wants to show the owner something, then it is likely that he is starting at a moderate level of arousal. This new data makes it clear that the vocal encouragement which most of us almost automatically provide for our dogs will just stir up his excitement level and make it less likely that he will be able to successfully communicate the information that he wants to get across to us.

In a press release, senior author Juliane Bräuer from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History summarizes the situation: “We were surprised that encouragement increased mistakes in dogs' showing accuracy. This could have impacts on the training of dogs and handlers in fields where dogs are working professionals."

So I suppose that the conclusion that we should draw from these experimental findings is to keep calm, carefully check what Lassie is gazing at, then follow her lead and she will show us where Timmy is, in time for us to rescue him.

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

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Melanie Henschel, James Winters, Thomas F. Müller, Juliane Bräuer (2020). Effect of shared information and owner behavior on showing in dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-020-01409-9