Communication between humans and dogs


No animal lives so closely with humans as the dog. They have to be able to live together in a harmonious way in an enclosed space. Dogs and humans work together too, often forming a team: guide dog and blind person, assistance dog and disabled person, working dog and handler. These partnerships would not be possible if the two species could not understand each other and did not share a common non-verbal language.

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Understanding language and gestures


Books on the subject have been around for many years and some have been bestsellers, but only since 1998 have academic studies been conducted into communication between humans and dogs. Since scientists started to delve into the subject, some fundamental ingredients of shared language have been identified in objective studies.

We have been able to show that companion dogs understand our gestures to indicate movement towards somewhere, such as when we raise an arm and point. We use this body language when we want the dog to return to its basket when visitors arrive, go outside, come back in again or fetch a ball from the corner of the room. The dog understands that its owner wants its attention and follows the gesture indicating the direction it should go in.

Conversely, dogs can also adopt behaviour designed to catch our attention and provide information on the location of something they want. They communicate their desire to go out, to come back in, to be cuddled. They are able to get us to comprehend that their ball is stuck somewhere or that they are hungry. We understand that the dog wants our attention and are able to read its behaviour to work out what it is trying to communicate.

On the one hand, dogs have learned to make a connection between a word and an object or an action. On the other, they are able to reinforce their attention-seeking and direction-indicating behaviour with vocalisations. Studies have also shown that they can tailor their barking to specific contexts and that humans are able to pick up on this. If we are at home, we are liable to ignore slow, sporadic barking, but if the dog starts to bark more persistently we are more likely to get up and investigate.


While very limited, this shared communication space enables humans and dogs to manage and negotiate their living space. While humans always have the last word, this does to a degree replace the relationship of force between the species. To exaggerate somewhat: without that communication space dogs would be routinely cooped up and leashed when they go outdoors. Put differently, if the dog did not understand what we mean when we point with our arms and was unable to communicate a few simple needs, like wanting to go for a walk or come back in, the two species would be in permanent conflict.

Our shared life is only possible because three essential criteria are met: domestication has taken the edge off the dog’s aggressive nature, it is able to form an attachment with humans and it is able to communicate with us, which reduces the probability that conflicts will arise.

Scientific studies show how well dogs understand human gestures and words, what signals dogs use to communicate to humans and in what contexts the species use sounds to communicate with each other. These are the basic means of communication employed by both species to interact with each other.

Dogs can understand some human postures

Dogs use human gestures to locate objects


One striking characteristic of companion dogs is their ability to understand human gestures, such as when we point with our arm or our head.


One striking characteristic of companion dogs is their ability to understand human gestures, such as when we point with our arm or our head. These are examples of referential communication, because their purpose is to get another person or animal to act by designating a location or an object. These are gestures that indicate direction. We use them when we tell the dog to return to its basket, go outdoors or, if we are on an agility course for instance, to run through a tunnel or jump over an obstacle.


This ability to comprehend human gestures is the most widely studied part of human-canine communication, resulting in the following experimental model. The dog is positioned opposite the person conducting the experiment who has an upturned container, such as a big bucket, to his or her left and right. The person attracts the dog’s attention, placing a reward, food or a toy, under one of the containers. The person then allows the dog to approach that container and gives it the reward. This procedure is repeated until the dog is fully involved, which generally takes between four and ten repetitions. In the next phase, the reward is placed under one of the upturned containers without the dog being able to see. The person then has to direct the dog to the correct container by gesturing. The results are conclusive. Dogs choose the container the person points in the direction of nine times out of ten. It makes no difference whether the person looks at the dog or the target while doing so.

The dog performs better when the person continues to point while the dog moves towards the container rather than pointing for just a moment. The success rate is higher when the finger is 10-20cm (4-8 inches) from the container than when it is around 70-80cm (30 inches) away, although the dog still performs better here than when no gesture is given at all. Dogs also understand when we point with a leg, but pointing with the stomach or pointing with a finger across the body produces random results, as does pointing with a mechanical arm or the arm of a dummy. Few dogs understand when a stick is used to indicate direction. The important thing appears to be that it is a human limb and that it is thrust outwards from the body.

Dogs are also capable of understanding which container to choose if the direction is indicated with the head, although the success rate is much lower. Nodding the head in the direction of the target, which includes movement, improves the success rate.


Leaning towards an object (without pointing at it with an arm) is not something many owners do to indicate the location of an object, but the success rate is higher than average, and improves further if the person looks at the dog at the same time.

The question is whether or not the dog uses its sense of smell to locate the reward in this experiment. It would not appear so, because the dog goes towards the container indicated regardless whether or not it is the container hiding the reward. In these situations in which dogs interact with humans, human gestures prevail over the dog’s sense of smell.

Dogs have a tremendous ability for knowing when we are watching them and when we are not


All owners know that if their attention is elsewhere their dog is much more likely to try to steal food or do something it knows it is not allowed to.


Another skill dogs have is that they can work out where a person’s visual attention is directed. All owners know that if their attention is elsewhere their dog is much more likely to try to steal food or do something it knows it is not allowed to.

The main clue dogs use to gauge whether we are watching them is the direction of our body and head. Researchers have studied how dogs react when their owner is facing in different directions: facing the dog, facing another person, facing halfway between the two or hiding behind a screen. Each time, a recording of the owner played on a tape recorder commanded the dog to sit. Dogs were found to be more likely to obey when their owner was directly facing them.

But can it then be said that dogs “know” what humans see? Have dogs developed a theory of the human mind? In fact it’s enough that dogs are sensitive to body language and posture, as well as the reward context. It is highly unlikely that owners feed their dogs without looking at them and dogs seldom get away with pilfering food if their owner is looking directly at them. Dogs don’t necessarily have to form an understanding of the mental state of others to learn the most opportune moment to steal a piece of food.

Dogs want people to look at them and actively attract their attention


Dogs, which have become dependent on humans, have developed this behaviour to help them get what they want, be that food, a run in the garden or a toy they cannot find. This is known as functionally referential communication. Communication because the signal or behaviour physically addresses an agent and is designed to get this agent to act; referential because a specific external object is involved to which the message is applied; and functional because it is not possible to show that the dog is aware it is exhibiting designation behaviour to attract the attention of an individual it wishes to give a message to. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that this behaviour appears to have a referential communication function.

Research conducted in this area shows that dogs are able to indicate to humans a target they want and that they are able to use information about location. To put it another way, they are able to get humans to do things and their ability to make use of a human’s way of looking at things is a key factor in these interactions.

Vocal communication

Vocal communication by humans directed at dogs


Humans typically tend to reinforce their gestures with vocalisations. Talking to the animal has an effect on its behaviour. For example, when dogs learn to follow a course with lots of twists and turns by observing a person doing it, continual verbal encouragement is what facilitates the learning process most.

Tone and intonation are the most important aspects of the human voice for dogs, which are encouraged or dissuaded depending on the case in point.

Vocal communication by dogs


Dogs bark in a range of different situations and produce a gamut of different vocalisations.


Barking is one of the distinctive characteristics of dogs, but it has not been of interest to researchers until fairly recently. The initial theories about barking were that it was a hypertrophied behaviour or a secondary result of domestication. Wolves can bark too, but they do so only in very precise circumstances, to alert other wolves or to protest, and there is very little variation in the acoustic structure of wolf barking. Dogs, on the other hand, bark in a range of different situations and produce a gamut of different vocalisations. These observations were long held to show that dog barking had no intraspecies or interspecies function.

But since 2002 researchers have shown that the acoustic parameters of dog barking clearly depends on context. For example, the characteristics of barking are clearly different when the doorbell rings (low frequency barking) and when the dog is alone or playing (more high-pitched barking). In the former case the individual barks are longer and they are repeated more rapidly than barks in other contexts.

Another essential observation is that stray and feral dogs bark a lot less. There is a theory that barking has more of a function in communication with humans. If that is true, humans should be able to decipher the code behind barking.

So it is proposed that during domestication dogs became better at expressing their emotional state and situation to humans, which suggests that barking is a functional communication system in the relationship between humans and dogs. However a recent study showed that dogs were able to differentiate between another dog’s bark depending on whether this dog was alone in a garden and when a stranger entered the garden. This suggests that barking could be a way that dogs communicate not only with humans but with each other too.


What is not in doubt is that companion dogs have specific, extraordinary skills for communicating with humans and that this is one reason why they have formed such a close bond with humans.

It would seem then that dogs cannot only “understand” us, they can “talk” as well. That being said, dog behaviour can be explained by more simple processes at a lower cognitive level, so it is important to bear in mind that until we can prove that an animal truly understands us and can “talk” to us, it’s best not to take things at face value and attribute cognitive processes to dogs. The fact remains that when we restrict ourselves to observable behaviour rather than imagined cognitive processes, anthropomorphism, conveyed by an apparent functional interspecies convergence of non-verbal communication skills, this can sometimes be useful in some day-to-day situations: a dog that stands at the backdoor looking alternately at the handle and at its owner while whining, then bolting out into the garden as soon as the door is opened, has definitely asked to go out or at least communicated its desire to go out.

But the study of social cognition in dogs is still at a very early stage and continued scientific research on their cognitive abilities is the only way to find out the degree to which their behaviour is governed by high-level mechanisms.

While much work remains to be done if we are to find proof that dogs have developed a concept of how people’s minds work, there is no doubt that they have a specific ability to adapt and learn, and that communication training for both dogs and humans seems to be the best way of optimising the lives of humans with dogs and the lives of dogs with humans.

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