Communicating With Your Dog
By Cecile Ashen-Young
Dogs develop social behaviour patterns that allow for safe interaction. An important aspect of these behaviour patterns is communication signals (Serpell, 1995). However, many caregivers misinterpret their dog’s communication signals and therefore misunderstand the motivations of their dog. This may lead to inappropriate and ineffective responses on the part of the caregiver, which in turn can lead to the development of problem behaviours in the dog (Estep, 2002). Knowledge of how dogs communicate can help to bridge the communication gap between caregiver and dog and prevent the development of many problematic or undesired behaviours.
Communication may be defined as behaviour involving signals where a signal is used to transmit information (Bolhuis & Giraldeau, 2005). The signaler uses specifically evolved, functional behaviour patterns to modify the behaviour of a recipient. Effective communication interactions,
i.e. interactions where information is effectively transmitted and received, therefore depend on the ability of both sender and recipient to recognise communicative signals and to emit recognisable signals. If either party does not understand the signals used to transfer information, there will be no information transferred and therefore no communication. To quote Marc Hauser (Hauser, 2000), “nothing would work in the absence of communication” and that includes effective training.
In terms of dogs and people, both are highly social species with a well-developed range of social signals that they use to convey information, and both have shown an ability to learn to recognise the other’s signals. (Jensen, 2007; Riedel, Schumann, Kaminski, Call, & Tomasello, 2008). For example, dogs use a variety of gestural, vocal and tactile signals to convey information about intentions (i.e. prey or play) and emotion (i.e. fear or distress). These signals can be accurately perceived by humans without the help of technology: they are therefore effectively used by dogs to communicate and cooperate with humans.
Both dogs and humans use visual and vocal communicative signals, and in terms of dog- human communication, each can initiate, understand, and provide information to the other with specific signals. Interspecific (dog-human) visual signals include facial and gestural signals. Gazing behaviour is an important aspect of human communication, both to initialise interactions and to understand behavioural cues indicating attention. This latter point is important: if the receiver does not attend to or understand the information signaled, then no communication can take place. A number of studies have shown that dogs can follow human gaze and are sensitive to the visual awareness of humans. Dogs also use visual signals to initiate successful interactions with humans (gaze alteration) (Jensen, 2007; Miklosi, 2007).
Humans use pointing gestures to refer to external events or objects. In a similar fashion, dogs can use the body orientation of conspecifics for localizing food. Dogs can also decode gestural signals used by humans in much the same way that 18 month old human children do: follow the direction indicated by a body part extending from the torso (Miklosi, 2007). In many cases, dogs and humans use vocal signals to influence one another’s behaviour. There has been quite a bit of debate as to whether a dog actually understands simple forms of human language or whether he simply responds to the acoustic features of verbal signals. All dog caregivers talk to their dogs, and the majority would probably aver that their dogs do understand much of what they say. At the same time, humans seem to be proficient in understanding, or at least categorizing, their dog’s vocalizations. Barking may play an important role in dog-human communication (Jensen, 2007). Dog barks vary in frequency, noise/harmony, and rate, and are used to express a wide range of inner states (Miklosi, 2007).
The main feature that enables communication between humans and dogs is the extent to which they can initiate, understand, and provide information to one another using non-verbal signals, such as visual and vocal signals (Overall, 2001). To quote Turid Rugaas, “a good relationship is based on two-way communication.” (Rugaas, 2006).
Bolhuis, J. J. & Giraldeau, L. (2005). The Behavior of Animals. Mechanisms, Function, and Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Estep, D. Q. (2002). Two Programs Educating the Public in Animal Learning and Behavior. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 15(2). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/87n7z77s
Hauser, M. D. (2000). The Evolution of Communication. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
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Miklosi, A. (2007). Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical Behavioral Medecine for Small Animals. Missouri: Mosby.
Riedel, J., Schumann, K., Kaminski, J., Call, K., & Tomasello, M. (2008). The early ontogeny of human-dog communication.
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Rugaas, T. (2006). On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Wenatchee: Dogwise Publishing.
Serpell, J. (1995). The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour, and interactions with people . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.