Dogs May Pick Up on Human Intent

Dogs, Babies Have Similar Reactions to People's Communication Signals, Study Suggests

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 04, 2012

Jan. 5, 2012 -- A new study may confirm what many dog owners already know.

Dogs not only get the meaning of some words like "treat" and "go outside." They can also follow a person's eye movements and pick up on nonverbal signals, a new study suggests.

"Dogs' receptivity to human communication is surprisingly similar to the receptivity of very young children," the researchers say in a news release.

They claim that our four-legged friends react similar to a 6 1/2-month-old infant when they're being spoken to or when given direct eye contact.

"Our findings reveal that dogs are receptive to human communications in a manner that was previously attributed only to human infants," says József Topál, PhD, a senior researcher on the comparative behavior research team at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

This makes dogs good at reading people's communication intent and responding to their nonverbal gestures, such as turning a head in the direction of an object.

The study is published online in the journal Current Biology.

Following Dogs' Eyes

For the study, the first to use eye-tracking software on man's best friend, 29 dogs were placed in front of video recordings.

One of the videos shows a woman standing at a table with two plastic flower pots placed on either side of her. At first, the woman holds her head down, then she raises it and looks directly at the dog and says, "Hi dog," in a high-pitched voice. This test revealed whether dogs were sensitive to the same cues as infants.

In a second video meant to test more complex communication signals understood by adults, the woman keeps her head down while talking to the dog and says, "Hi dog," in a low-pitched voice.

In both situations, after giving a verbal cue to the dog, the woman turns her head to look in the direction of one of the flower pots. Researchers measured whether or not the dogs looked to the same side as the woman and how long they stared at the woman who spoke to them.

They compared the dogs' reactions to a comparison situation in which the dogs received no eye contact from the woman and no "Hi dog" address from her.

The study shows that dogs looked at the screen longer when they had eye contact from the woman and were directly addressed -- as in the first example where the woman showed a stronger attempt to communicate -- and they also were more likely to follow her head movement..

The researchers suggest their results show striking similarities between the gaze-following behaviors of adult pet dogs and preverbal infants in response to human communication signals.

"By following the eye movements of dogs, we were able to get a firsthand look at how their minds are actually working," Topál says.

Show Sources


Téglás, E. Current Biology, published online Jan. 5, 2012.

News release, Cell Press.

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