While our canine companions can learn to respond to certain complex human gestures through training, scientific research has shown that dogs have an inherent understanding of much of our visual, non-verbal communication even without it. Unlike their wild canine relatives such as wolves and foxes, domestic dogs have developed the ability to observe and properly interpret many of our simple physical gestures.
Response to Gestures
According to an article published in the March 2008 edition of the "Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior," dogs are born with a basic understanding of human gestures including nodding, pointing, glancing at or reaching for a person or object. The dogs studied for the article were able to correctly follow these visual cues when they were used to indicate where hidden treats were. Not only that, but after responding to the gestures, the positive reinforcement of finding these rewards further encouraged the correct response in each successive trial. These responses appeared to come from both dogs with consistent human interaction from a young age and those without it.
Dogs vs. Other Animals
When tested against chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), dogs (Canus familiaris) performed much better when responding to a human pointing at an object containing food, according to a study published in the February 2012 issue of "PLoS ONE." Most dogs consistently understood that there was food hidden in the object, while many of the chimps didn't, even though they are considered the closest living relatives to humans. Dogs also responded with a better understanding of human gestures than wolves (Canis lupus) or wild foxes (Vulpes spp.), according to the "Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior." These studies indicate that domestication may have played a role in our furry friends' ability to understand us.
Researcher Gabriella Lakatos, of the Department of Ethology at Eotvos University, found that dogs have the same ability to understand human gestures as a 2-year-old human, reports Discovery News. Use this inherent ability to teach your pup to respond to more complex non-verbal signals. Because dogs communicate with each other using body language, teaching Fido to obey hand signals should come instinctively to him, recommends the Mendocino Coast Humane Society. Combine a verbal command, like "sit," with a gesture, such as bringing your open hand up toward your chest from your side. Reward the desired behavior with a treat to reinforce it. Eventually, you're pooch will respond to both the verbal and non-verbal commands.
Unfortunately, some pups may have experienced abuse or harsh discipline from a previous owner. In these cases, you may find that your dog cowers in fear when you perform some gestures, especially those that are fast and near his body, warns the Arrow's Heart Animal Rescue. When dealing with fear-based responses, you'll have to use trial and error to determine what gestures set off your pup. Avoid using these gestures or retrain your dog to associate them with something good. For example, if Fido reacts with fear to a raised hand, give him a treat each time you do it. For pups who respond with serious fear-based aggression to any gestures, work with an animal behaviorist.
- PLoS ONE: Dogs (Canis familiaris), but Not Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Understand Imperative Pointing
- Max Planck Research Group for Comparative Cognitive Anthropology -- Department of Comparative and Developmental Psychology: Research with Dogs
- Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior: A Review of Domestic Dogs' (Canis Familiaris) Human-Like Behaviors: Or Why Behavior Analysts Should Stop Worrying and Love Their Dogs
- Mendocino Coast Humane Society: Dog Obedience Training
- San Diego Humane Society and SPCA: Was Your Dog Abused?
- Arrow's Heart Animal Rescue: Poor Socialization
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Aggression in Dogs
Based in Las Vegas, Susan Paretts has been writing since 1998. She writes about many subjects including pets, finances, crafts, food, home improvement, shopping and going green. Her articles, short stories and reviews have appeared on City National Bank's website and on The Noseprint. Paretts holds a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.