Studies show the importance of body language and eye contact in interactions between dogs and humans.
Thousands of years of living with humans and domestication have probably given our furry friends the ability to be attentive and understand most human visual communications. The main question is how flexible is the dog’s understanding of human communication.
For example, studies show that dogs are better than wolves and even chimpanzees at pointing at humans. Juliane Kaminski, PhD, a member of the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth and former cognitive psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has studied how dogs perceive these gestures and whether they understand their referential nature, as well as the dog’s ability to understand other forms of human communication, including object labels and non-linguistic gestures such as symbolic and other non-directional representations.
“We believe we are dealing with a particular adaptation of dogs that are sensitive to forms of human communication. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that selection pressures during domestication have altered the dogs to be perfectly adapted to their new niche, the human environment,” Kaminski says. He speculates that the dogs may even have been born with this innate gift, as six-week-old puppies possess this ability without further training.
In this study, Kaminski and his team compared the ability of chimpanzees and dogs to understand human scoring. The subject pointed to an object that was visible out of the human’s reach but within the animal subject’s reach. If the chimpanzee or dog retrieved the object, it was rewarded with a treat. The chimpanzees did not react well and ignored human gestures, although they were interested and motivated to get the treats. The dogs did very well in the test.
Kaminski and his team concluded that the chimpanzees did not understand the referential intention of humans in this task. They did not consider the clue to be important to their goal of obtaining the treat, and therefore simply ignored the individuals during the study. “We know that chimpanzees have a very flexible understanding of others,” Kaminski said. “They know what others can and cannot see when others can and cannot see them.” Kaminski believes that wolves don’t have this ability. “Wolves, even though they have been raised in a human environment, are not as flexible in human communication as dogs are. Dogs can read human gestures from an early age,” Kaminski said.
According to Dr. Marta Gacsi from the University of Eotvos in Hungary, the breed of dog can also be an important factor in facilitating the understanding of human communication. Gasci and his researchers studied the performance of different breeds of dogs in understanding human pointing gestures and found that hunting dogs and herding dogs were better than other hunting dogs, dirt dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock protection dogs and sled dogs.
In a study of intentional and unintentional pointing in dogs, it was found that dogs clearly distinguished between pointing and gazing by responding to intentional cues. Dogs distinguish actions in which a human communicates location from situations in which a human makes similar but non-communicative movements in the same direction, implying that dogs do not follow the directional behavior of a human.
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