Tag Archives: Children

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.”


Dog Bites, Common Questions and Answers

I was recently interviewd regarding dog bites, children and prevention. Many of these questions come up over and over so i thought it useful to post them here. Enjoy!

Question;  Why do half of all bites involve children and the family dog? Is it simple proximity, kids provoke dogs; dogs are frightened of children, etc?

 Dogs communicate their frustrations, dislikes or fears in many subtle ways, these subtle ways are often missed by humans so the dog’s communication progresses through a hierarchy of events until eventually the dog bites if it isn’t understood. In most of the cases we take on, where a dog has bitten a family member, we are informed “the bite came from nowhere”. We then discover, during our assessment, that the dog had been giving a variety of signals for months if not years.  These signals can be things such as freezing, snarling or snapping. A dog considers these signals requests to “increase the distance” between them and you.  If we ignore them they increase the signal, like when we shout at a child who is ignoring us. Dog aggression can be based on either their genetic responses to the outside world, such as predatory drive, or they can stem from learned behavior.  In both cases the aggression can be resolved or prevented with the correct socialization and management of dogs through their critical learning phase.

Dogs bite under an array of circumstances. Resource guarding is one example such as when the dog has not been trained to relinquish something they value (toy, food bowl, treats etc.) and a child or adult attempts to take the valued item away, the dog may bite. Another example is when the family pet is fearful and is placed in a situation where it bites to escape or avoid something. Dogs may also bite when displaying predatory behaviors such as chasing small quick animals (like children) which can result in bites. A dog can also display aggression if they are in pain and are approached or touched in a sensitive area. The median age of dog bite patients is 15 years old and boys aged from 5 to 9 have the most incident rates. It is not a surprise to learn that 77% of dog bites on children are in the facial area, whereas with adults and postal carriers it is the lower extremities.


 Question; Are most of the bites involving children simply accidents or misunderstandings since most dogs I know usually adore all the family members?

 When dogs bite it is not an accident.  Dogs have huge control over the speed and effectiveness of their mouths. Teaching puppies bite inhibition is the most important thing we can do and they can learn. Bite inhibition teaches dogs the power of their jaws. The only difference between a bite that does significant damage and a bite that just bruises is whether or not the dog has “acquired bite inhibition”. Dogs cannot write to their congressman, or email their family members, they communicate in dog language. When pushed they will bite. It is our responsibility to ensure we understand our dogs, know when they are in pain, showing fear or in need of training to relinquish objects and to prevent and manage resource guarding. This is one of our key roles as dog owners, we must raise socially savvy dogs who are polite family members and we must do this by exhibiting benevolent leadership so they can live safely in our world.


Question; What is a dog trying to communicate when they do actually bite a family member or child?

 Dog biting is aggression.  In the canine world aggression can mean any act or behavior that intimidates or harms. We consider growling and snapping as the first stage of aggression. When a dog bites they have reached the last stage of the aggression ladder. There are lots of reasons dogs bite but fundamentally they are attempting to create distance between themselves and something they fear or need to avoid.


Question; Can you give some tips on how parents can make sure children and the family dog live in harmony? Maybe some important do’s and don’ts

 When you bring a dog into the home enroll it into a good obedience class. This not only gives you verbal control of the dog but also builds trusting relationships. Have children involved in the training. The training methods used now are so dog friendly that small children can quickly gain control of a 100 or more pound dog. Make sure your dog is well socialized, desensitized to having its collar grabbed or having food taken from its mouth and having people pick up its toys and anything else the dog considers valuable. Teach the dog bite inhibition. The mother does not have time to fully do this because we take puppies from their “bite school” before they have learned this crucial skill from mum and their litter puppies. Teach children to respect animals and treat them kindly. Do not allow children to grab at the dog, pull tails, ears etc. Crate train the dog so it has somewhere quiet to go if it needs to and have children respect that the crate is the dog’s private space. Ensure the dog gets adequate exercise and mental stimulation; do not tether dogs for too long.  Always ensure your dog is part of the family. Dogs that are tethered, not sufficiently exercised or isolated are more likely to be involved in a bite incident.

 Question; Of these do’s and don’ts, what is the most important thing a parent can do to make sure no problems occur?

 Train the dog starting from when it is a puppy. Teach the dog to have a soft mouth. So in the event the dog is ever stressed or pushed and an emotional response results in a bite, the damage is minimal. 

 Question; Does it matter whether the dog or the child arrives first in a household? How does this affect their interaction going forward? For example, a dog has been the “child” in a household and then a new baby arrives.

 Each of these situations is unique and will need to be assessed based on the household, the dog and other variables.

 Question; Anything else you would like to add?

 At the first sign of any aggression contact a professional trainer so it can be rectified. Do not wait until you are dealing with an actual bite. A small financial investment in training a dog can ensure a healthy and happy union between dog and human.