Whereas communication history and “the principle of least effort” play a predominant role in human communications, dogs’ communications are highly influenced by their owners, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Science of Human History and Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany.1
Human communication across all cultures and languages involves the use of shared information about the past and present (communication history). We also conserve energy by making communications as effective and efficient as possible (the principle of least effort). Per an MPI press release:
“Given the remarkable sensitivity of dogs to human vocalizations, gestures and gazes, researchers have suggested that 30,000 years of domestication and co-evolution with humans may have caused dogs to develop similar principles of communication — a theory known as the domestication hypothesis.”2
How Well Do Owners and Dogs Communicate?
The MPI research team set out to determine the factors that influence the “form, effort and success” of dog-human communication using a hidden-object task. They recruited 30 dog-owner pairs and focused on a communication behavior called “showing” that involves dogs getting the attention of their humans and directing it to an external source.
While each owner waited in another room, a researcher hid the dog’s favorite toy in one of four boxes, in plain view of the dog. When the owner returned to the room, the dog was cued to show him or her where the toy was hidden. If their team effort was successful, the owner and dog played as a reward.
The test involved two conditions; in the first, the boxes were placed close to each other, which required more precise “showing” on the dogs’ part. In the second test, the boxes were placed farther apart, which allowed the dogs to “show” in a general direction.
Dogs’ Excitement to Obey Increases Effort, Decreases Accuracy
The researchers observed that the dogs didn’t apply the principle of least effort, since they used as much energy in test #2, which was designed to be easier for them, as they did in test #1. However, according to the researchers, this outcome might have been a result of the owners’ influence on their dogs’ behavior.
The dogs weren’t affected by different communication histories, since they performed comparably and used similar amounts of energy in both tests, regardless of which test they started with. According to the MPI press release, “Despite putting in similar amounts of effort, dogs adapted their showing strategies to be more or less precise, depending on the conditions.”
The researchers concluded that a crucial factor impacting the effort and accuracy of the dogs’ “showing” was the behavior of the owners. Those who encouraged their dog to show them where the toy was hidden increased the dog’s showing effort, but typically decreased their accuracy.
“We’ve seen in previous studies that if we keep eye contact with the dog or talk in a high-pitched voice, we seem to prompt a ‘ready-to-obey attitude’ which makes dogs very excited to follow our commands,” says Melanie Henschel, lead author of the study.
For example, when the owners asked their dogs “Is the toy here?” while pointing at the boxes, they might have prompted the dogs to show just any box.
Encouragement Increases Mistakes
The MPI study is the first of its kind to suggest that owners can influence their dog’s showing accuracy and success.
“We were surprised that encouragement increased mistakes in dogs’ showing accuracy,” says study co-author Juliane Bräuer, head of the DogStudies Lab at MPI. “This could have impacts on the training of dogs and handlers in fields where dogs are working professionals. Future studies should focus on the complex effects of the owner’s influence and the best strategies for handlers communicating with a dog.”
The results of this study are both fascinating and poignant, in that they show how very important we are in the lives of our canine companions, and just how much our own behavior influences theirs. Imagine being so excited at the prospect of pleasing someone that your brain sort of short-circuits and makes you less effective. I find that incredibly touching.
5 Ways Dogs Are Simpatico With Humans
According to Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University and author of the book The Genius of Dogs, in the last dozen years, we’ve learned more about how dogs think than in the previous 100 years.
As Hare explains in an interview with Business Insider, “There have been a lot of big discoveries … Dogs are very distinctly different from us genetically, but psychologically, they are more like us than some of our more closely related, more genetically related primate relatives.”3
Business Insider lists several discoveries researchers and scientists have made in recent years about our wonderful canine companions.
1. Dogs feel empathy — Believe it or not, one of the ways we know dogs feel empathy is because they catch our yawns, which is called ’emotional contagion’ and is a form of empathy.
Studies also show that your dog’s brain reacts to voices and sounds like crying or laughter in the same way yours does. Many dogs respond to human crying with submissive body language (tucking their tails, bowing their heads), which is consistent with empathy.
“A lot of people think that domesticated animals, when compared to wilder animals, aren’t as smart,” says Marc Bekoff, a dog behavior researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It shows that species adapt to the social niche in which they live. And the social niche for a dog would be its human companions.
I think part of the reason there is this strong bond between dogs and humans is because we are empathetic to them and they show empathy to us.
We can never know for sure. But I’ve done a lot of work on animals’ emotions. Animals and humans share a lot of the same neurological structures and the same neurochemistry. I think it’s really dog empathy.”4
2. Dogs make eye contact — Interestingly, dogs are the only non-primate animals who look us in the eyes. Researchers discovered this about a dozen years ago while studying the domestication of wolves. During an experiment in which wolves were raised like dogs, they learned that wolves do not share this trait.
They found that eye contact is a unique behavior dogs only display with humans. It doesn’t even occur between dogs and their biological (canine) parents. That’s why it’s so incredibly important for dogs to bond with their humans.
3. Dogs love our personal scent and consider us part of their family — In a 2014 fMRI study led by Gregory Berns of Emory University, he and his colleagues discovered that an area of the canine brain related to positive expectations, the caudate nucleus, is most triggered by the scent of a familiar person.5
These findings indicate that dogs are not only able to pick out the scent of their owners when presented with a number of different scents, and have a positive response, but also that a familiar human scent remains in a dog’s mind.
“It’s one thing when you come home and your dog sees you and jumps on you and licks you and knows that good things are about to happen,” says Berns.
In our experiment, however, the scent donors were not physically present. That means the canine brain responses were being triggered by something distant in space and time.”6
Dogs are also the only domesticated animals that interact with their humans in the same way babies interact with their parents. If your dog is anxious or frightened, he’ll look to you for help and comfort, just as a small child will run to his parents.
4. Dogs understand gestures like pointing — Like young children, dogs are able to understand what it means when we point at something. They typically will at least look in the direction we’re pointing, and if we’re pointing at something they recognize or want, will go get it. This is an ability even chimpanzees don’t display.7
Another skill dogs have that chimps don’t is the ability to follow even more subtle forms of human body language, such as the direction of our gaze.
5. Dog brains react to human voices — Researchers in Hungary have discovered that canine brains react to voices the same way human brains do. And they even respond as we do to crying, laughter, and other sounds that are emotional in nature.8 The temporal pole, which is the forward-most part of the temporal lobe, is activated in both humans and dogs when they hear human voices.
When emotional sounds like crying and laughter were played for both human and dog study participants, the dogs’ response showed a very similar pattern of activity to that of the humans, with an area near the primary auditory cortex “lighting up” in both groups.
And interestingly, when emotional-sounding dog vocalizations were played, for example, whimpering or fierce barking, once again the humans and dogs had a similar reaction.
“We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners,” says Attila Andics, lead study author from the Comparative Ethology Research Group at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, “and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog – but we now begin to understand why this can be.”9