Tag Archives: canine communication

Do Humans Have an Inborn Understanding of Dogs?

By Dr Becker

According to a recent study conducted at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, our human ability to understand dogs probably peaks at around 10 years of age.

By age 10, children seem to develop a natural talent for decoding dog barks.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, involved children aged 6, 8 and 10 years, and adults who listened to different types of recorded dog barks.

The barks were separated into three general categories:

  • Barking while the dogs were alone
  • Barking at the approach of a stranger
  • Barking while at play

Study participants had to match the barks to three types of human facial expressions, including fearful/lonely, angry and playful.

All of the kids and adults had no trouble picking out angry barks. But of the three groups of children, only the 10 year-olds were able to correctly distinguish the other types of barks. Their ability to understand each type of bark was about the same as that of the adult listeners.

According to study authors Pe?ter Pongra?cz and Csaba Molnár:

“This shows that the ability of understanding basic inner states of dogs on the basis of acoustic signals is present in humans from a very young age. These results are in sharp contrast with other reports in the literature which showed that young children tend to misinterpret canine visual signals.”

Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News thinks the study supports the theory of a universal animal language – a primitive method of communicating basic emotions that may unite virtually all mammals.

Matching Barks to Emotions

A few years ago, study author Pongracz and colleagues took a look at how well people were able to distinguish five different canine emotional states based on the barks of a Mudi, which is a Hungarian herding dog. The five states were aggressiveness, despair, fear, happiness and playfulness.

The researchers concluded changes in tone, pitch, and elapsed time between barks determined how study participants categorized the emotional states behind the barks.

High-pitched barks with longer intervals between barks were perceived as less aggressive than faster, lower-pitched barks.

According to Pongra?cz:

“This relationship could have formed the basis of an evolutionary ritualization process whereby low pitched vocalizations tended to signal aggression because larger animals are more likely to win contests…and high pitched vocalizations became predictors of submission or friendly intent.”

Study participants also associated certain barks with the emotions of despair, happiness and playfulness. This seems to indicate humans and canines might have the ability to communicate at a higher level than the universal mammal language.

Scientists think so many years of domestication have enhanced dogs’ ability to communicate with us, and not only through barks, but also through visual cues like changes in expression.

Our Special Bond with Dogs

The idea that humans have an innate ability to understand dog barks should probably come as no surprise.

After all, wolves and dogs have figured prominently in the lives of men, women and children since the Stone Age.

These same study authors also recently tested the ability of people who were born blind to understand the meaning of dog barks. They wanted to use people without sight because they have no visual memory of barking dogs to interfere with what they hear.

It was concluded the blind can also pick up on the general mood or inner state of dogs based on their barks, which certainly supports the theory that humans are born with the ability to some extent.

When you think about it, this makes all kinds of sense.

Animals in the wild listen for the sounds of other animals as a matter of survival – usually for purposes of eluding predators and other dangerous interlopers, or catching prey.

Humans are animals, after all – and we haven’t always lived safely tucked away from other animals.

What about Cat-to-Human Communication?

According to researcher Nicholas Nicastro of Cornell University, our feline companions also appear to have evolved in terms of their ability to communicate with us.

But according to Nicastro, the goal of kitties is to manipulate their humans! “Though they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want — basically food, shelter and a little human affection,” said Nicastro.

I think most of us who are owned by cats can agree communicating with a feline member of the household is a whole different ballgame from exchanging information with the family dog!

Dr. Dennis Turner of the University of Zurich and a leading expert on the feline-human bond, describes the results of his research this way:

“What we found was the more the owner complies with the cats wishes to interact, the more the cat complies with the owners wishes, at other times. They go up together, or they go down together. If the person doesn’t comply with the cat’s wish to interact then the cat doesn’t comply with the person’s wishes. It’s a fantastic give and take partnership. It’s a true social relationship between owners and cats.”

 


Talking Dog, Understanding How Dogs Communicate and Their Social Behavior

© 2010 Niki Tudge

Featured in ‘The New Barker’ Magazine August 2010

All behaviors that dogs exhibit are designed to either access pleasurable situations or avoid and escape unpleasant situations.  A dog’s communication systems are much ritualized and designed to avoid or cutoff conflict. This has made dogs as a species very successful in terms of their numbers and their variety. Things go awry when we humans misread the signals dogs send us leaving them helpless to effectively communicate their feelings to us. We cannot know or understand what dogs think and vice-versa. What we can do is understand canine body language, observe them as we interact with them and then respond appropriately.  ‘Talking dog’ is simple if you remember a few important rules and it will make interacting with dogs fun and safe.  The dogs you come into contact with will really appreciate it.

The types of social behaviors dogs demonstrate can be broadly grouped into either distance decreasing or distance increasing.  A dog uses distance decreasing behaviors to promote approach, play and continued interaction.   A lumbering soft gait, relaxed body and a relaxed face indicate the dog is encouraging interaction. Dogs who want to engage in play will demonstrate the ‘play bow,’ a posture where the dog bows the front of his/her body so that the front legs are parallel to the ground while the hindquarters remain in the standing position, the dog may offer you a paw, lean into you or rub against you.

Distance increasing signals vary and can be easily misread. The distance increasing signals we all seem to ‘get’ are when a dog stands upright making  each part of their body appear as large as possible, weight on the front legs, upright tail, upright ears, piloerection (the hair on their back stands up), and the dog will bark or growl. We seem to instinctively react to these signals and take them as the warning they are.

The distance increasing signals that we commonly misinterpret are the more appeasing behaviors dogs demonstrate.  Dogs use these appeasement behaviors to make friendly encounters more reliable and to help them pacify what they anticipate to be a hostile encounter if escape is impossible for them. These behaviors are a nonaggressive way to ‘cut off’ conflict. When a dog displays these behaviors we have to recognize that this is the dog’s way of showing us that they are unsure and a little scared.

You may see appeasement signals in one of two ways.  Passive appeasement behaviors are easily misunderstood and are often labeled as ‘submissive.’  Dogs displaying passive appeasement will present themselves in a recumbent position exposing the underside of their body.  The dog’s ears are typically back and down against the head and the tail is often tucked between the upper legs.  Sometimes the dog will expel a small amount of urine while it waits for the attention to cease. The active appeasement dog is often incorrectly labeled as ‘excited’ or ‘overly friendly.’  They will often approach you with the whole rear-end wagging in a “U” shape allowing both its face and genital area to be inspected and they may be desperate to jump up and ‘get in your face’.

For humans then, it is important when meeting and greeting dogs to be able to recognize if a dog is friendly and wanting to greet you or if the dog is experiencing stress or fear. A conflicted dog will want to approach but is too scared or unsure of the outcome. Their body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors. Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If you make a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach then they may become aggressive.  This is often the case with a fear biter.  If a dog is demonstrating ambivalent, mixed signals then it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow the dog an escape route. Don’t force the meet and greet by moving toward the dog or having the dogs’ owner manipulate the dog toward you.

In general when you meet and greet a dog make sure you have a relaxed posture. Let the dog approach you, turn slightly to the side as this is less threatening for the dog than you standing in a full frontal position leaning over them.  Always ask permission from the dog’s owner to pet their dog. Talk gently to the dog without making eye contact.  It helps to crouch down and keep your hands by your side without making any sudden movements. When you have determined the dog is not showing any signs of stress or fear and their body language is relaxed and happy then you can slowly move your hand under their chin to stroke them. If the dog is showing passive appeasement signals, as described above, then step away, give them space and allow them to approach you on their terms and in their preferred timing.

It is important that we recognize a dog’s “cut off’ behaviors.  ‘Cut off’ behaviors are designed to cut off the social contact. If, when greeting a dog, you don’t recognize that the dog is  scared or stressed or you choose to ignore the dog’s communication and push forward with your approach you  are unfairly pushing the dog into a situation where it may only be left with one option and not a favorable option to either dog or human.

Dogs will typically give plenty of warning if they are uncomfortable with something that another dog or a person is doing.   These warning signs may include a direct stare, a rigid body, a growl and showing “whale eye” (flashing the whites of their eyes). The dog’s ears will be flat against the head and they may have a closed tense mouth, if you see any of these signals then stop what you are doing immediately and allow the dog to slowly back away.

Dogs are wonderful animals that love and need to be a part of our social lives.  But, like people, their personalities range from being social butterflies to wallflowers. Tailor your approach and greeting style based on the communication they are giving you. Dogs are very clear with their intentions and emotions and respond appropriately to ours.  Remember our body language and approach speaks louder than our words to a dog.

Niki Tudge is the owner and founder of The DogSmith, America’s Dog Training, Dog Walking and Pet Care Franchise.

 

You can reach Niki via email at NikiTudge@DogSmith.com or www.DogSmith.com


Canine Body Language

Dogs are very social animals and are expert communicators with one another.   Their evolution required this over the millennia to ensure the dog pack’s smooth functioning and successful hunting. We’d love to be able to speak and understand their language; however, our understanding of canine communication is stunningly limited.  It’s often hard for us to know what another dog is saying to our dog, and so we may have no idea why our dog responds in a certain way – we call our dog’s behavior “unpredictable”.  Our dog would disagree.        

Although much of dog communication is undecipherable for us, we are aware of some of the methods dogs use to communicate. These include at least the following:

scent markers (including pheromones, urine, feces and anal gland secretions, and undoubtedly others we are unaware of);

vocalization (such as barking, whining, yelping, howling, growling, grumbling and general muttering);

visual signals (such as body postures; appearance of facial features such as eyes, ears, and mouth; appearance of other body features such as tail and hair coat),

Body movements (fast or slow; face-to-face or indirect; closeness of physical contact; use of the mouth for licking, snapping, or biting).

 

Of these, scent is probably the most important for communication between dogs.  A large part of the canine brain is devoted to the sense of smell (compared to the miniscule portion of the human brain which has this function).  The first thing dogs do when they meet peacefully is give each other a thorough sniffing over,  and the most important and enjoyable part of most dog’s daily walk is sniffing everything possible, and maybe leaving behind a few scent marks of their own.    Unfortunately, this major aspect of dog communication is probably the least understood by humans, since it is completely outside of our own experience.   Who really knows what information dogs are picking up from sniffing one another?  We can only guess.  

What humans are good at is using our eyes.    Although the very important world of scent communication of our dog is impenetrable to us at this point, our human visual skills allow us to develop an understanding of what we can see:  our dog’s body language.  And this is a rich language in itself.  While we don’t yet have a full understanding of everything our dogs communicate visually, we probably have a pretty good grasp of the basics.