What is your dog trying to tell you?
It turns out, dogs are trying to get our attention, but they use more than just a few signals. In fact, we don’t follow their commands they will try harder to elaborate the gesture. It makes you wonder – what has man’s best friend been trying to say all this time?
A new study, Cross-species referential signalling events in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), was published in Animal Cognition.
Researchers decided to first observe the top 19 “referential” gestures demonstrated by canine participants and then began cross-referencing which researcher-responses elicited the most favorable reactions from the dogs. These positive reactions were taken as a sign that the researchers had decoded the dog’s request (i.e., signal, gesture, language) correctly.
Working with 37 dogs in the researchers’ homes, they focused on what dogs were trying to signal to humans – not other dogs.
Writing for Treehugger, Melissa Breyer writes:
The team conducted the research in the context of “referential gestures,” actions used by a signaller to draw a recipient’s attention to a specific object, individual or event in the environment. Referential gestures are non-accidental and “mechanically ineffective movements of the body which are repeated and elaborated on until they elicit a specific response from an intended recipient.”
In total, the dogs came up with 47 potential referential gestures, which the researchers narrowed down to 19 that had the five features of referential signaling. As described in the study, they are:
Roll over: Rolling onto one side of the body and exposing the chest, stomach and groin
Head under: Plunge headfirst underneath an object or human
Head forward: Move the head forwards and up to direct a human’s appendage to a specific location on the body
Hind leg stand: Lift front paws off the ground and stand on hind legs, front paws are not resting on anything
Head turn: Head is turned from side to side on the horizontal axis usually between a human and an apparent object of interest
Shuffle: Shuffle whole body along the ground in short movements, performed whilst in roll over position
Back leg up: Lifting of a single back leg whilst lay on one side of the body
Paw hover: Hold one paw in mid-air whilst in a sitting position
Crawl under: Move entire or part of body underneath an object or a human’s appendage
Flick toy: Hold toy in the mouth and throw it forwards, usually in the direction of a human
Jump: Jump up and down off the ground, human or an object, usually while staying in one location
Paw reach: Placing a single paw or both paws underneath another object to retrieve an object of apparent interest
Nose: Pressing nose (or face) against an object or human
Lick: Licking an object or human once or repetitively
Front paws on: Lifting both paws off the ground and resting them on an object or human
Paw rest: Lifting a single front paw and resting it on an object or human
Head rub: Involves rubbing the head against an object or human on which the signaller is leaning on
Chomp: Involves opening the mouth and placing it over the arm of a human whilst repeatedly and gently biting down on the arm
Paw: Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human
The gestures were then categorized by their “apparent satisfactory outcome” (ASO). The ASOs were determined by a) a desire and b) that desired being satisfied. In other words, the dog wanted something, signaled, and produced an outcome that resulted in ending the gesture. They identified eight ASOs at first, but dropped three of them because they were infrequent; another, “Play with me!” was also excluded as :some gestures used during play are also used with other meanings in other ASOs,” notes the paper. In the end, they worked with the four ASOs that were the most frequently observed:
“Give me food/drink”
“Open the door”
“Get my toy/bone”
Am I the only who things that dogs are trying to say a bit more than those four basic needs??
Anyway, here is a chart of which human reactions appeared to please the canines’ commands:
As interesting as it is the see a study on dog language – I’d personally like to see a less clinical approach.
What if animals have more than just a little gripe with us and we’ve been deaf to their requests this whole time? Are researchers and biologists – who kill animals without batting an eye – really going to be the ones to crack the code?
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Image: Suncat Stanford