Give Me A Sign: Nonverbal Communication And Dogs
As many dog guardians will attest, when you develop a relationship with your dog, they understand many of the things you say to them, even beyond their typical favourite things like “walk” or “treat”. Dogs are highly attuned to our verbal and nonverbal signals and are skilled at interpreting what they mean.
However, communication is a two-way street, and it is not always the case that humans’ observation skills are as good as those of our animal friends. In order to have successful interactions with dogs, it is important for us to be able to interpret dog body language; our sensitivity to nonverbal signals may affect our ability to recognize fear and subtle signs of stress, resulting in interactions that are less pleasant for the dog than we realize.
A study from the Department of Large Animal Sciences at the University of Copenhagen set out to determine just how important human nonverbal sensitivity is in the quality of our interactions with dogs. In addition, the study also looked at whether our experience with dogs plays a role in the success of our human-dog relationships.
The study was made up of two phases: the first phase hypothesized that experience with dogs would have a positive influence on human nonverbal sensitivity; the second phase looked at how experience with dogs and level of nonverbal sensitivity can affect human-dog interactions. It was hypothesized that a lower level of nonverbal sensitivity would have a negative impact on human-dog interactions, which would be shown by the behaviour of the dog, and that experience with dogs would have a positive influence on the interaction.
To complete the first phase, 97 veterinary students were selected and were instructed to take an Online PONS test (Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity) as well as an online questionnaire aimed at assessing their experience and skills with dogs. From that group, 16 students with high PONS test scores and 15 with low scores were invited to participate in the second phase focussing more specifically on human-dog interactions. The 31 students each had an opportunity to greet a dog and the interaction was filmed and analyzed.
Results from the study showed that people who had more experience with dogs weren’t any more likely to have a high level of nonverbal sensitivity, which was different than what was initially hypothesized. However, the results of the second phase showed much closer alignment with what was hypothesised, indicating that a lower awareness of nonverbal cues has a negative effect on our interactions with dogs. As well, more experience with dogs can positively affect our interactions.
Notably, the study found that the quality of our experience with dogs is an important factor that can counterbalance a low level of nonverbal sensitivity. Those students who had direct experience being responsible for a dog, rather than, for example, simply living in the same household as a dog without being the primary caregiver, had positive human-dog interactions, even when a low nonverbal sensitivity might suggest otherwise. There are a couple of suggestions made about why this may be, for example, that students with more experience with dogs are better skilled at sending signals to dogs that make them feel secure and comfortable.
More research in this area could be beneficial—replicating the study with people who don’t really identify as “dog-people” and don’t have much experience with dogs could provide greater detail on how nonverbal cues and experience play a role in positive human-dog interactions. However, the study demonstrates that both professionals such as veterinarians, as well as dog guardians, could benefit from more hands-on training in this area.
Training could help us identify the cues our furry friends give us in our day-to-day interactions, while allowing us to identify the subtle changes in demeanor that may indicate a dog’s increased level of insecurity or discomfort. In other words, these are all steps we can take to ensure that what we intend to communicate is heard and respected, potentially improving the lives of dogs, and the humans who love them.