Thursday, December 1, 2011
Patricia McConnell Seminar: Communication
It's another quiet night at home. I am curled up on the couch, absorbed in a book, when Maisy walks over to me and gazes intently at me. I'm not sure how something as silent as a stare can be so piercing, but it sure does wonders to get my attention. I smile and ask, “What do you need, pumpkin?”
She dashes away into the other room, then comes back to the doorway and stares at me again. She wants something, I can tell, so I set my book day and say, “Show me!” She leads me to the den, where she nudges at her Kong, then looks at me pointedly.
And people say dogs can't communicate.
Patricia took some time at the seminar to dispel this myth. Of course we attendees know that dogs communicate, and I'm sure we all have stories like the one above. But it's still nice to see science delving into the topic, so today I'm going to share just a few of the recent studies on canine communication.
What's all that noise?
Whether they're feeling threatened, protecting some food, or just having fun, dogs can make a lot of noise. Experienced dog owners know that a growl can mean many different things, but are they merely depending on context? Scientists set out to find out, and recorded dogs growling in each of those three contexts and then analyzed the sounds acoustically. They found that play growls are shorter and higher pitched, but that there is little difference between a growl directed at a threatening stranger or while resource guarding.
Despite this, the dogs could still tell the difference. The researchers placed a dog alone in a room with a tempting bone, and when the dog approached, would play a recording of the different growl types. Unsurprisingly, the resource guarding growl was more effective at stopping the dog than the other growls.
Other studies have found that dogs can tell the size of a dog by its growl. Using recorded growls and images projected on a screen, the scientists tracked where the dogs looked. The vast majority of dogs would look at the correct sized image.
Wag the Dog
We all know that a dog's tail can wag for a wide variety of reasons. Patricia likened it to a human smile- it's usually a happy thing, but sometimes it's forced or faked. Scientists wanted to learn more about tail wagging, so they created a special box with a camera mount, placed the dog inside, and then presented him with several different stimuli type to see what his tail did.
When the dogs saw their owners, their tails were more likely to wag further to the right. They also wagged to the right when the saw unfamiliar people, but there was less amplitude. When the dog saw another dog who was unfamiliar to him, the tail tended to wag to the left. The same was true when the dog wagged while alone. The most interesting response to me was the dog's wag when he saw a cat: most dogs would wag to the right (the same as for people), but with the least amount of amplitude of any wag.
Patricia shared that the conclusion is that the right-sided wag probably indicates that the dog is interested in approaching and investigating, while the left-sided wag probably indicates the dog's desire to withdraw or avoid the situation. It makes me wonder how a fearful or reactive dog's tail might wag when faced with unfamiliar people.
And your point is?
One of the very interesting things about dogs is that they seem to intuitively understand pointing gestures by humans. Research for years has been mixed on whether or not dogs understand pointing better than other animals, such as their canine cousin, the wolf.
Monique Udell has done some pretty interesting research on this. She found that wolves can following pointing gestures, and in fact, that they do just as well as dogs... if the conditions are right. Wolves can do it if the experiment is done outside. Pet dogs do best if they're tested inside. Interestingly, shelter dogs tend to fail miserably when the experiment is conducted indoors, scoring worse than even the wolves. Patricia believes this is because of stress, both in general and that of the testing environment.
Udell also studied a variety of point types. Directly touching something- and maintaining that position- was the easiest gesture for dogs to understand. They also did well with a sustained point. While they could understand other types of points, including momentary taps and points, as well as those held both to the side and when across the midline, they didn't do as well with those gestures. Keep that in mind next time you're trying to show your dog something.
The Dog Watchers
This last study was the most interesting to me. Researcher Michelle Wan collected 30 videos of dogs and had them rated and categorized by eight experts. She then played them for over 2100 participants. These people ranged from those who had never owned a dog to professionals who'd worked with dogs for more than ten years. Each participant was asked to categorize if the dog was feeling happy, sad, fearful, angry, or neutral, and then to rate the level of safety, boldness, fearfulness, stress, etc.
The results showed that people with more dog experience were more likely to label dogs as “aroused” in some way. They were also more likely to observe “negative” emotions like fear, sadness, or stress. This rings true to me. The more I learn, the more I see miserable dogs. Once you learn that a yawn can mean more than tiredness and that a lip lick is more likely to be about stress than hunger... well, it's hard to ignore those signs.
Anyway, that's just a small sampling of what science knows about dog communication. I'd love to hear your stories about how your dog “talks” to you. Does he growl? Point? Understand your gestures? Share in the comments!
If You Want to Know More
A Dog's Growl Announces Its Size
‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls, by Farago, et al
Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli, by Quaranta et al
Study on Human Perception of Emotions in Dogs, by Michelle Wan
Patricia's blog post on Monique Udell's Pointing Research