Dogs and Communication

Do dogs really know what you're trying to tell them?

Posted Jan 29, 2018

Art Markman
Source: Art Markman

If you have ever been around a dog, you know that dogs and humans are able to communicate to some degree.  Humans issue commands to dogs that they follow.  Dogs make requests of humans like pawing them to get them to pet them or barking while standing next to the door in order to be let outside.

The hard part is figuring out what the dogs understand about this communication.  Does a dog use her paw to get you to pet her, because she understands that her action is a request or is pawing you just reliably associated with getting pet, so performing the action has led to the desired outcome in the past? Do dogs really know what people want when they are asked to fetch an object? What dogs know in communication settings was summarized in a paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Juliane Kaminsky and Patrizia Piotti.

It is hard to study what dogs mean when they communicate with humans, because it is hard for experimenters to set up situations that get dogs to create gestures they make to communication.  As a result, most of what we know about what dogs are trying to communicate comes from observations.  For example, dogs are clearly good at showing humans something.  They can do this by getting a human’s attention (perhaps by barking) and by alternating gaze between the human and the object.  That is, the dog will look back-and-forth between the human and the object. 

Quite a bit more work, though, needs to be done to understand what dogs intend to communicate about objects and whether dogs understand enough about what humans do and do not know to understand whether dogs are explicitly trying to communicate things to humans that they think the humans don’t already know.

There is much more work on what dogs do with communicative gestures by humans.  It is easy to set up situations in which a human communicates with a dog and then experimenters watch the dog’s behavior. 

One thing we know form this research is that dogs are able to follow pointing gestures and eye gaze.  So, if you point in a direction, the dog will look in that direction.  They are particularly likely to look in that direction if the pointing is preceded by some action that indicates that the human intends to communicate.  So, talking to the dog or making eye contact first is more likely to lead the dog to look in the direction of the point than pointing first and then trying to make eye contact or talking to the dog.

These studies reveal a few other interesting aspects of what dogs do in communication situations.

One is that dogs seem to focus on the direction of the pointing rather than the object being pointed to.  Studies suggest that when a person points to an object and then the object is moved, the dog runs to the spot the person pointed toward rather than the object that the person pointed at.

Other studies suggest that dogs differentiate between objects people care about and objects that they themselves care about.  In some clever studies, the dog is expected to point to the location of a hidden object.  One object is something the person cares about.  The other is an object that the dog cares about.  The dog will point to or indicate the location of the object that the person cares about rather than the one the dog cares about.  Dogs will also fetch objects based on what the person seems to like rather than what the dog likes. 

Finally, the evidence suggests that the communication abilities of dogs comes from the long relationship between humans and dogs and the breeding of dogs.  Studies suggest that wolves are not able to do the kinds of things that dogs do (like follow a person’s gaze or pointing).  In addition, breeds of dogs that were initially selected for cooperative work (like sheepdogs) are much better at following a person’s point than breeds selected for other kinds of work like guard dogs, hounds, or sled dogs). 

Ultimately, dogs don’t have the sophisticated abilities to communicate that humans do, but dogs have a special relationship with people.  There are few other animals that are able to follow a human’s gaze or look in the direction they are pointing.  And there are few other animals that are able to share attention by making eye contact.  Dogs excel at both of those elements, reflecting the long period of time that humans and dogs have lived together.

References

Kaminsky, J. & Piotti, P. (2017). Current trends in dog-human communication:  Do dogs inform? Current directions in psychological science, 25(5), 322-326.