By Linda Carroll
Scientists have finally proven what every dog owner knows – our canine friends read our facial expressions like dedicated detectives.
Dogs don’t just depend on verbal commands to figure out what we want, a new study shows. Instead, they look into our eyes and try to guess what we’re up to, according to the study published in Current Biology.
Hungarian researchers showed that dogs will even follow our gaze if we make eye contact with them first. This study “reveals that dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously only attributed only to 6-month-old human infants,” said study co-author Jozsef Topal a researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Topal and his colleagues studied 29 canines. The dogs were shown a movie of a woman who sometimes would stare straight at the dog and call out to him and then turn her head to stare at an object next to her. The other times the woman would just turn her head and stare at the object.
For the most part, dogs who were addressed both through eye contact and with a verbal greeting tended to follow the gaze of the woman in the movie. When no eye contact was made, the dogs didn’t follow the gaze of the woman.
There have been similar experiments in babies, Topal said. And the dogs are behaving just as 6-month-olds do.
The new findings come as no surprise to Crystal Knode, a 51-year-old legal secretary from San Jose, Calif. Her 9-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rachel, is always observing family members’ body language and facial expressions.
“She anticipates what is going to happen,” Knode said. “She watches and takes cues to figure out what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do. Dogs are very attuned to body language and hand motions.” Topal is convinced that the dogs’ behavior is something that has been bred into the species over its long partnership with humanity.
“Dogs have evolved to sharing their lives with humans,” Topal said. “And they gained new skills that support their social interaction with humans.”
Deleta Jones isn’t buying that analysis. She thinks this is just the way dogs interact – whether it’s with a human or another dog.
“When they learn verbal commands, they are learning a foreign language,” said the 48-year-old dog trainer from Hollister, Calif. “Dogs normally speak through body language and facial expression. It’s more natural to them.
“If you’ve ever watched dogs at a dog park, you’ve seen it. Within 30 seconds of the time they enter the park a huge amount of information has passed back and forth between the new dog and the ones already in the park. They’re exchanging looks, observing eyes and body posture. In seconds they know who is dominant and who is submissive.”
That skill just transfers to relationships with their owners, Jones said. “If people are upset and crying the dog sees the upset facial expression and also smells the adrenaline,” she added. “Dogs read all of that.”
So ultimately, babies, until they develop language, are using a communication system that all social animals do. Later on, they’ll lean more heavily on the spoken word, while dogs, cats and horses will continue to rely on body language.
People sometimes forget that body language is the more natural mode of communication for their pets, Knode said. If you really want to have a conversation with your pet, tune in to their language, she says.
“You have to try to communicate on their level, what they understand,” Knode said. “They have their own language and you just have to try to communicate and think as they would think.”