Dog Talk: How Canines Communicate Largely Depends On Their Owners

JENA, Germany — Even though dogs haven’t been bestowed with the gift of speech, any dog owner will tell you that they still communicate with their dog just fine. Movements, looks, and vocalizations serve as a communicative bridge between an owner and his or her dog. But what about when our furry friends have a message of their own to convey?

A team of researchers in Germany investigating how dogs “show” their owners the location of a hidden object reveal that both the accuracy and effort of the canines’ communications largely depends on their owner’s actions.

Dog detectives

In all, 30 pairs of dogs and their human owners took part in this research. To start, each pet and his or her owner was separated. While the human waited in a different room, a researcher entered the dog’s room, and in plain sight placed one of the pooch’s favorite toys in a one of four boxes. Then, when the owner finally entered the room, the dog would try and show where the toy was hidden. If it was able to successfully show his or her owner the location of the toy, the duo would be rewarded with a prize.

This experimental setup actually happened on two occasions for each dog-human duo. The first was a much smaller, more intimate room setup that allowed for more precise “showing.” The second instance  the entire area were much more spread out. This setup intended to facilitate more general, easier “showing” from the dogs.

Now, when two humans communicate, it’s in our very nature to try and use as little energy as possible. For dogs, though, that same principal isn’t the case. The experiments show no evidence that canines try and conserve energy with their communications. Each pup used just as much energy during both the smaller, more difficult setup and the spread out, easier experimental layout. But, the study’s authors admit this observation may have been influenced by the owners’ own actions.


Also, regardless of which layout they were placed in first, the dogs always used similar amounts of energy/motion. However, they did in fact adapt their behavior to be more or less precise depending on the scenario.

Dog owners: Best friends — and leaders

In the end, it’s clear that owners are very influential in how dogs try to communicate the location of the lost toy. If an owner vocally encourages their pet pooch to find the toy, the dog always put more effort into their “showing” actions. Unfortunately, this extra vigor also often leads to decreased 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. So when owners asked their dogs ‘Is the toy here?’ and pointed at the boxes, they might have caused dogs to just show any box,” says main study author Melanie Henschel, of The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in a statement.

This is the first piece of research to suggest that an owner’s actions can shape their pup’s communicative accuracy and success.

“We were surprised that encouragement increased mistakes in dogs` showing accuracy. 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.” concludes Juliane Bräuer, senior author and head of the DogStudies Lab at MPI-SHH in Jena.

The study is published in Animal Cognition. 

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