Human-Dog Communication

Communication is a complex subject and most of us spend our whole lives trying to get it right. It’s often hard enough trying to communicate with other humans. Sometimes it seems amazing that we can communicate so well with another species, such as our dogs. We’re able to “know” what our dogs are trying to tell us (most of the time) when they give us a look, wag their tails, bark, run to the water bowl, or sit by the door. How are we able to understand dogs so well? How are we able to read their body language?

Dogs have been sharing our lives closely for some 15,000 years — ever since somebody figured out that a few meals shared with wolf cubs were a good investment. But humans weren’t born understanding the body language of these early wolf-dogs. And it’s a good bet that these first wolf-dogs didn’t have exactly the same kind of communication skills that domestic dogs have today. In fact, in experiments today, wolves still don’t display the same kind of understanding and interaction with humans that dogs do, even if humans have raised them.

In one set of experiments with wolves raised by humans, the researcher would point or use his eyes to indicate where a treat was hidden. The wolf was unable to make the connection and couldn’t find the treat. But when the researcher did the same thing with a dog, pointing or using his eyes, the dog instantly found the treat. The dog was able to “read” the body clues that the researcher was giving. Being able to read this kind of body language is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding as humans have chosen dogs, which were good at understanding human communication. Without humans to guide their evolution from wolves, there would be no dogs. We have actually created the dog from the wolf.

You can try this same experiment with your own dog. Hide a treat and just point or use your eyes to indicate to your dog where the treat is. Chances are that your dog will quickly be able to read the clues and find the treat without using any other senses. We have bred this ability into dogs. It’s probable that there are other ways that we’ve improved the communication between dogs and humans, without even realising it. For thousands of years we’ve chosen the dogs who understood us best as our companions, as our hunting dogs, as herding dogs, and so on. We’ve chosen the smartest dogs and the dogs who were best at their jobs. It’s no wonder that the communication between dogs and humans today is as close as it is.

If you have a puppy, when you first bring the puppy home he won’t know very much. You have to teach him everything. But it won’t be long before he has learned words (“No,” “dinner,” “food,” “come,” “ice cream,” “outside,” and so on, plus his name). He will have learned the family routine. He will be on his way to learning his house training. And he will be bonding with you and the rest of the family. When you think about it, that’s quite extraordinary for a young puppy. That’s a lot for a young animal to learn in a short period of time. And you will be learning his body language so you know when he needs to go outside; when he’s hungry; what his different barks mean, when he wants to play, and so on.  The two of you will be creating your own kind of communication.

Most people know what it means when a dog wags his tail or licks their hand, but there is so much more to the communication between people and dogs. Spend some time with your dog and think about how easy it really is for you to understand each other without anyone ever making a sound.

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