Is Your Dog Try­ing To Tell You Something?

How dogs tell us what is hap­pen­ing in their world

Modern Dog - - FRONT PAGE - By Stan­ley Coren Il­lus­tra­tion by Michelle Simp­son

Some­times it is the ob­ser­va­tion of small, ev­ery day be­hav­iours that leads to an in­creased un­der­stand­ing of how dogs think and be­have. I was re­minded of this when a friend gave me a gift. It was a boxed set of se­lected episodes from the “Lassie” tele­vi­sion show, which ran from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s, dur­ing which a hand­some Col­lie shared ad­ven­tures with sev­eral dif­fer­ent families in var­i­ous set­tings and sit­u­a­tions.

It was a warm, lazy af­ter­noon, and we had noth­ing else planned, so I of­fered my friend a beer and the two of us sat down to look at a ran­domly se­lected episode and watch my favourite dog star per­form. At one point in the episode, Timmy, played by the child ac­tor Jon Provost, got into trou­ble (as usual). Lassie ran off to get him some help, and in the next scene we got to see Lassie run­ning up to Cloris Leach­man, who played Timmy's mother. Lassie looked di­rectly at her, then turned and looked in the di­rec­tion where Timmy could be found. When she did not seem to re­spond, the dog looked at the woman again, mak­ing clear eye con­tact, and then gave a quick bark be­fore look­ing back in the di­rec­tion where the dog’s young mas­ter was lo­cated. Next Lassie re­peated the be­hav­iours, even tak­ing a few quick steps to­ward that path that she wanted the woman to fol­low. Timmy's mother even­tu­ally got the idea and raced out of the kitchen to go help save her son.

My friend, who is an as­tute psy­chol­o­gist but does not work with dogs (or any an­i­mals other than hu­mans), gave a lit­tle chuckle and com­mented, “It would be nice if dogs ac­tu­ally acted like that. What the direc­tor is hav­ing the dog do is a chore­ographed dance. He’s try­ing to show us the be­havioural equiv­a­lent of what a child who can't yet ver­bal­ize might do in this sit­u­a­tion. It be­gins with the child try­ing to at­tract the attention of an adult by at least point­ing in the di­rec­tion she wants the adult to go. But that, of course, is be­yond the ca­pa­bil­ity of a dog. Dogs use com­mu­ni­ca­tion to tell us how they're feel­ing, and although they're good at ex­press­ing their emo­tional states (tail wags, growls, whim­pers, and that sort of thing) they cer­tainly don't en­gage in ref­er­en­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tion where they tell us about in­ter­est­ing things in the en­vi­ron­ment, like where you might find a pot of gold—or, I sup­pose in the dog's case, a pot of bis­cuits.”

I was im­pressed that my friend had picked up on the sig­nif­i­cance of the dog's be­hav­iour; how­ever, as I later ex­plained to him, it is ac­tu­ally true that dogs nat­u­rally be­have ex­actly like Lassie did in that TV episode. It is sim­ply the ca­nine way of “show­ing” us what is hap­pen­ing in their world. As far as I can de­ter­mine, the first sci­en­tific dis­cus­sion and demon­stra­tion of this kind of be­hav­iour ap­peared in the jour­nal An­i­mal Cog­ni­tion. It was a re­port by a team of re­searchers headed by Adam Mik­lósi from the De­part­ment of Ethol­ogy at Eötvös Univer­sity in Bu­dapest, Hun­gary.

The study in­volved 10 dogs and the setup was fairly sim­ple. It took place in a room the dogs had been fa­mil­iar­ized with. The room con­tained three bowls which were scat­tered around in

dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, placed upon book­shelves or other sur­faces which were well above the dog's reach. Next, some­body (a per­son the dog al­ready knows) en­ters the room and hides ei­ther some food or a favourite toy in one of those three bowls and then leaves. The dog's owner then en­ters the room and the re­searchers video­tape what hap­pens next.

Typ­i­cally, the dog will en­gage in a be­hav­iour where they at­tempt to make eye con­tact with their owner and, once that is done, they then look in the di­rec­tion of the in­ter­est­ing stuff. Some­times the dogs will make a sound, a bark or a whim­per, ei­ther when gaz­ing di­rectly at their owner or at the de­sired ob­ject. The sound seems to have the same func­tion as some­one say­ing, “Hey look over here!” Gaz­ing at the owner is a means of mak­ing sure that the dog has the hu­man's attention and gaz­ing to­ward the in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial is then the equiv­a­lent of point­ing.

Of course the re­searchers in­tro­duced a num­ber of care­ful con­trols, since it could sim­ply be that the dogs are just star­ing at something they want with no par­tic­u­lar in­ten­tion of com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Were that the case, even when the owner was not in the room, the dogs should con­tinue to stare at the in­ter­est­ing lo­ca­tion. It turns out, how­ever, that the dogs look at the de­sir­able lo­ca­tion a lot less when the owner is not there. It is prin­ci­pally when their owner is in the room that the dog's be­hav­iour be­comes this al­ter­nat­ing gaze-at-the-per­son-and-then-the

ob­ject, which is re­peated un­til they get some kind of re­sponse. One in­ter­est­ing as­pect of such be­hav­iour is that dogs do not have to be taught this form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It seems to ap­pear nat­u­rally. And hu­man be­ings, with­out any de­lib­er­ate in­struc­tion, seem to rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of this se­quence of ac­tions, re­spond­ing to it by go­ing to check out the lo­ca­tion that the dog is gaz­ing at. The re­searchers sug­gest that perhaps the rea­son why this be­hav­iour is so com­mon in dogs may have to do with the in­ter­ven­tion of hu­mans. These in­ves­ti­ga­tors sug­gest that, perhaps dur­ing the process of do­mes­ti­ca­tion, we have sys­tem­at­i­cally se­lected dogs with bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion abil­i­ties. A dog who can tell us where there are things which in­ter­est him, or which he con­sid­ers to be im­por­tant, is a more use­ful com­pan­ion and is eas­ier to get along with. So the dogs that have this abil­ity will be cared for a lit­tle bit bet­ter and will more likely be the ones se­lected for breed­ing. That means that if this be­hav­iour is ge­net­i­cally con­trolled it will be­come more preva­lent in suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of dogs.

In any event, it ap­pears that the se­quence of ac­tions that we were ob­serv­ing in Lassie was not sim­ply part of a “dance” con­cocted by Lassie's train­ers and the film's direc­tor, but rather was an ex­am­ple of a com­mon way in which dogs en­gage in “show­ing” us what they con­sider to be in­ter­est­ing in their world— the cook­ies on the counter, for ex­am­ple.

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