The Age-Old Struggle Of Getting Belly Rubs: Human-Directed Communication By Dogs
We know that dogs do a lot of work and spend a lot of energy trying to read and understand human behavior. However, on the flip side, our knowledge of dogs’ abilities to produce gestures directed toward and understood by their human companions is lacking. The researchers in this study sought to address that knowledge gap by studying gestures that dogs direct to their human companions throughout everyday communication.
Referential gestures are commonly used among us humans to direct attention. We often repeat and elaborate on them until we get a specific response from the intended recipient. Pointing, the most commonly used referential gesture, is said to be an important part of human language development.
Despite their frequent use by humans, referential gestures in non-human animals were, until very recently, thought to be rare, although not unique to primates. Birds and fish have been observed using such cues extensively. Previous research has demonstrated that dogs use the position of their body to indicate the location of a “goal object,” and that they communicate their intentions by alternating their gaze between an object of interest and the human while barking.
To maximize the amount of gathered data, the scientists in this study used a citizen science method by asking the participants to film their dogs performing everyday communicative gestures. Activities of interest included requesting food, asking that doors be opened, and asking to play or to be scratched. The four most frequent requests were interpreted as “scratch me,” “give me food/drink,” “open the door,” and “get my toy.”
The results provide strong evidence that companion dogs use referential gestures during everyday interactions with people. The dogs performed gestures in a referential way, and the humans typically were able to respond in ways that satisfied the signaling dogs. This suggests that the human-dog cohabitation process may have led to a change in the cross-species communicative abilities of both humans and dogs, in turn explaining how both have become so skilled at understanding each other.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that a dog’s individual gestural repertoire increases with the number of people who live with the dog, and that dogs often use several gestures to indicate a single reward. Such skill demonstrates that they can elaborate on their initial gesture when an appropriate response hasn’t been achieved.
Many who live with companion animals will not be surprised by these results. Naturally, dogs try to tell us what they need when they need it. This systematic proof, however, adds scientific weight to their impressive abilities and the willfulness in dog-driven communication. This type of research will help animal advocates in their continuous efforts to raise more awareness about dogs’ intelligence and their welfare needs.