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How Dogs Know When Communication Is Intended for Them

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A dog sits in grass and looks at its owners hand as it gives them a command

Claudia Bensimoun author of How Dogs Know When Communication Is Intended for Them

Studies show importance of body language, eye contact in dog-human interactions.

Thousands of years of living with humans and domestication have most likely given our furry friends an evolved ability to pay attention to and understand most human visual communication. The main question is how flexible dogs' understanding of human communication really is.

For example,studies show that dogs are more skillful in making use of human pointing gestures than wolves and even chimpanzees. Juliane Kaminski, Ph.D., member of the psychology department at the University of Portsmouth and formerly a cognitive psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, investigated how dogs perceive such gestures and if they understand their referential nature, along with the dog's ability to comprehend other forms of human communication, including object labels and non-linguistic gestures, such as symbolic and other non-directional representations.

"We think that we are looking at a special adaptation in dogs to be sensitive to human forms of communication. There is considerable evidence suggesting that selection pressures during domestication have changed dogs such that they are perfectly adapted to their new niche, the human environment," Kaminski says. She suggests that dogs may even be born with this inherent gift, because six-week-old puppies with no major training possess it.

During this study, Kaminski and her team compared how well chimpanzees and dogs understand human pointing. The person pointed at a visible object out of human reach, yet within the reach of the animal subject. If the chimp or dog retrieved the object, they would be rewarded with a treat. The chimps did not do well, ignoring the human gestures, even though they were interested and motivated to get the treats. The dogs did really well in the test.

Kaminski and her team concluded that the chimps failed to comprehend the referential intention of the human in the task. They did not see the pointing as important to their goal of receiving their treats, so they simply ignored the people during the study. "We know that chimpanzees have a very flexible understanding of others," says Kaminski. "They know what others can or cannot see, when others can or cannot see them." Kaminski suggests that wolves do not have this skill. "Wolves, even when raised in a human environment, are not as flexible with human communication as dogs. Dogs can read human gestures from very early ages on," says Kaminski.

Breed of the dog may also be an important factor in whether the dog easily understands human communications, according to Marta Gacsi, Ph.D., from the University of Eotvos, Hungary. Gasci worked with her researchers to examine the performance ofdifferent breeds of dogs in making sense of the human pointing gesture and found that gun dogs and sheep dogs were better than other hunting dogs, earth dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock guard dogs and sled dogs.

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In a study about intentional versus unintentional signaling to dogs, it was found that dogs clearly differentiate between the pointing and gazing cues by responding to intentional signals. Dogs differentiated acts in which a human communicated a location to them, from situations in which a human produced similar but non-communicative movements in the same direction, meaning that dogs do not follow just any directional behavior of a human.

The main cue that indicates a human's intent of communication is eye contact, and the main cue indicating the human's intentional communicative act is also eye contact. This proves that eye contact is very important in dog-human interactions.

Another study showed that dogs usedcommunicative gestures much more when there was eye contact, and whether their name was called did not affect their performance. Similar findings have been found in pups who have had very limited human interaction.

Studies also show that the human gaze is not only important to animals when trying to do what their owner says; dogs also look at their human in situations of conflict and uncertainty. Research has indicated that gaze is a learned behavior as humans positively reinforce dogs by comforting them when they seek their owners' comfort.

A study by Shannon Kundey, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and psychopharmacology at Hood College, found that dogs were able to predict human behavior just by watching humans interact with each other, similar to what Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Ph.D., University of Milan, found in her study. Dogs pick up cues by observing body movement and vocal cues between humans interacting with each other, and can thus identify the friendlier person in a group, making the dogs friendlier toward that person.

Human body language is also important in communicating with dogs. Kaminski's findings demonstrate that when a dog communicates with humans, it is to tell a location rather than a thing, but it is usually because the location has something the dog wants, such as their toys.


Research shows that dogs are able to interpret human gestures as imperative commands for them to do something, or as informative, as their human tells them the information that the dog is seeking. This type of communication is more effective so as to tell dogs where certain things can be found, like food or toys, but not effective when telling the dog what they should or shouldn't do, such as sniffing another dog.




First published in The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) and the World Cynosport Rally in 2013.

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Meet The Author 

Claudia Bensimoun author of How Dogs Know When Communication Is Intended for Them

Claudia Bensimoun

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance journalist and author, and specializes in veterinary content, and eBooks. She's a long-time feature writer for Animal Wellness magazine, Fido Friendly magazine, and the United States Dog Agility Association. In addition, Bensimoun has written for numerous pet websites, magazines, newspapers and online publications. Her interests include wildlife conservation, animal welfare, disaster/ humanitarian relief, veterinary research, and veganism.

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