Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Dogs are reading us constantly! They get cues from the position of our eyebrows, the tone of our voice, the muscle tension of our mouths, the speed of our movement. They have learned to read us so clearly, that you don't even want to think about lying to them!
Have you noticed that your dog will look at what he or she wants you to pay attention to? They will stare at the door if they want to go out. They will stare at a toy they want you to toss. The dish that is empty. If only we could be as clear as they are.
Chaser, a border collie learned over a thousand words. She could not only respond to about a thousand individual names of toys but had a basic syntax such as "bring the blue ball" or "Find the pink monkey." She could even understand a basic order such as "nose the yellow tire, then bring the hedgehog." She was trained by her owner, retired Psychology Professor, John Pilley, who was impressed by Rico, another border collie who had learned over 200 words for objects in 2004. To put his in perspective, the average two-year-old human child knows about fifty words.
As impressive as Chaser's learning of the names of objects, Gregory Berns wanted to understand more. With his MRI research on dogs, he has shown that dogs generally associate nouns with verbs. Objects and verbs become paired. So toy becomes "get toy" or "bring toy." This is one reason why it is easy to train dogs to perform tricks because they are action-based tasks. For dogs to learn, it has to be fun. Otherwise they can lose interest, and of course, they need tons of positive reinforcement. For some dogs, they are treat motivated, others will be motivated by pleasing their owners, and still others are motivated by being able to play with a favorite reward toy.
Berns suggests that word order matters. He noticed that the attention-grabbing technique of using the name of the dog as the first word is more effective, then giving the verb. He says, "Fido, sit!" is more effective than saying, "Sit, Fido."
Dogs can read our gestures, such as when we point to where a treat might be hidden. Dogs can correctly read this gesture about 90% of the time. There are only a few species who understand the meaning of a human gesture such as pointing to mean that they should direct their attention to where the human is pointing. This understanding of intention is because of the deep bond between human and dog, which is why they are so adept at reading our faces, body language, and tone of voice. This video below shows how dogs, unlike chimps, can correctly understand the meaning of human pointing.
As Berns notes, "Dogs come wired to process faces, and increasingly, researchers are uncovering dogs' abilities to read emotions too." Dogs can accurately read both the left and right side of our face, which means they know how we are feeling, even if we are trying to hide our true emotions. They can also correctly identify emotions if they are only shown the upper half of the face, only the eyes, or even if only shown the lower half, the mouth. This was discovered by Ludwig Huber who runs the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna.
Basic Dog Body Language
The video below reviews some basic principles of how dogs communicate through body language. Remember that these are not absolute rules, and your dogs may do things differently, so it is important to know your dog's baselines, so you can see what changes might be important. For example, some dogs may lip-lick or yawn to soothe themselves, so this is important to understand it may have a different meaning from the one suggested in this video. It is now understood that lip-licking and yawning are self-soothing gestures and may have different meanings from the ones identified in this video. So remember, that body language is context-specific and you want to keep an open mind as to the meaning.
Accurate Reading of Dog Body Language Prevents Bites
There are many good reasons to expand our abilities to “speak dog” to be willing to enter their world and to better understand their non-verbal communication. If humans could better learn to read and understand dogs, many negative experiences could be avoided, as dogs often signal their displeasure, and have a series of warnings indicating that they are scared or angry. These range from visual, sound, or behavioral cues. Dogs use methods of communicating that are loud and clear to each other, such as body language, movement, the position of ears, eyes and tail, or body stillness. They use sounds such as growling or barking, showing teeth, and a variety of specific cues that are often a series of progressive warnings.
Humans are often ignorant of or ignore warnings, which can result in a bite. Most bites are a result of the dog being startled or frightened rather than aggression. In some cities, a bite could result in a dog being euthanized. After a bite, often dogs are taken to shelters, and usually, this dog will never leave alive. In most cases, these attacks are more often due to human error than to actual aggression, and indicate there is a need for greater education about canine warning signs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, (the CDC), about 2% of Americans are bitten by dogs, only 0.0002% result in death. Let us compare, however, this figure to the more than three million deaths of healthy dogs in shelters in the US. It is clear that humans need to better understand and appreciate the species, invoke more protective laws, and educate ourselves as to the rights of dogs as intelligent, feeling, and even conscious beings.
"Read my lips."
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection