Friday, March 11, 2011

Are Dogs Picking Up Our Human Behavior?

Have you ever thought, "This dog thinks he's human?" I know I have. And it was usually because of something smart my dog surprised me with.  Like manipulate me into getting up from my comfortable couch to get them a treat, cookie, or chew bone. And sometimes, it can just be a look. A certain, eye to eye contact, that is not staring, but mutual.  A meeting of the minds.

The Max Planck Institute, in Leipzig, Germany is studying just how much human behavior our dogs are capable of learning and understanding. For instance, do dogs understand it when we extend our arm and fore finger and point? Studies show they do, approximately 90% of the time. Hidden food was the reward in the test. 

Studies were also done to test how dogs perceive  our eye movements. Could a person use their eyes to "direct" a dog to where the food is hidden, with no other clues?  Once again, studies show they can.

The eyes are very important when it comes to communication. Here is an interesting test they did, to find out how important it is for your dog to see your face and eyes when communicating.

They put 3 people in a room and set them each in a chair. Person #1 had no obstruction of the face or eyes. Person #2 had a blind fold covering the eyes only. Person #3 had a red bucket completely covering their head and eyes. A dog was brought in and instructed to beg from the human. In every test, the dog would choose Person #1 whose head and eyes could be seen. Seeing your face and eyes are an important part of communication.

Another example of this was a test they done with 2 humans and a dog. One human laid a treat down and instructed the dog to leave it alone. Then the human just sat there with their eyes open, looking straight ahead. The dog was a little temped, but didn't touch the treat.  Next they placed a person in a room who laid down the treat and again instructed the dog to leave it alone. But this time, the person sat with their head straight ahead, eyes closed. Guess what? The dog walked around the treat once or twice, then ate it! This shows that dogs are aware of what we can see when our eyes are open.  They apparently won't touch the treat if we've got an eye on them, but if we fall asleep, the dog has no conscious at all!

"Mapping" is a technique, that was once thought of as a human behavior, not something that canines were capable of. Studies have proved this theory to be wrong. "Mapping" is this: Lets say your dog has 10 toys and he knows the names of each one. You buy a new toy, name it "red toy" and put it in the mix, and then ask your dog to fetch the "red toy". The dog knows the name of all his toys and by the process of elimination, he figures out which one is the "red toy".  We teach this to first graders as well. The child has a picture of a pig, a cow, and a crow.  The child is asked to circle the crow. The child already knows what a pig and a cow are, so the other one must be the crow. Again, it's the process of elimination. It's amazing that some dogs are capable of this kind of "thinking and reasoning".

I think this stuff is amazing. I've always believed that dogs are smarter than some humans we give them credit for. I'm so glad to see studies being done. I think human lives are improved ten fold with animals, but especially dogs. We are only beginning to know how helpful they can be in our society and just how much they are capable of.

Do you think you could hide food some place in a room and direct your dog to it, with only a point, or eye movement, and no other clues? Most bird dogs are taught to pay attention to cues and whistles  from their master, as well as most working breeds.  But how about the eyes? Can you direct you dog with just eye contact? Go ahead. Try it.

For the paper on the study, Click this: Human-Like Social Skills in Dogs?  You should find it online in PDF form.


  1. Wow. That's interesting. I do use pointing which works sometimes. Have never tried just eyes. I'm not surprised about the blindfold and hidden face results. Have seen too many dogs that won't trust a person if they're wearing sunglasses so figured eye contact was primo important for them. Love the "process of elimination" studies. Great post!

  2. Good Post, Karen!

    Not all dogs are created equal. :-)

    Jack can pick up on the eye thing and we have been messing with it since he was little. Jill however listens to the tune of a different drummer or something. We can't call her stupid, because she has her own "talents".

  3. My old setter Flash handled well to hand signals in the field. She picked it up almost immediately. At home, you could drop something or hid it and all you had to do is point at it and she would go right to the are and look for what you were directing her to. Ginger was not as good and Flash would usually beat her to the treat. Its definately learned and some are better at it than others. I also found that a piece of cheese left unattended was deemed to be for them. No exceptions!

  4. Theresa, The process of elimination amazes me. Even knowing what I do about dogs, it still is really something that a dog good reason that way.

    Sharon, Poor little Jill. I'm sure she does have her own talents!(I hope she didn't hear you)

    Art, That doesn't surprise me at all, because Gordon's have been known to be smart at problem solving. Flash seems to be no exception. And I have no doubt, about the cheese. We Gordon owners are all aware what cheese hounds they are! lol

  5. I have had dogs since my earliest memories. I love them.

    I absolutely know that dogs can understand human language but in all my years with dogs I could understand only two of their barks. Excitement as when somebody comes to visit and alarm when something outside the habitat is a threat. I guess I should know what "I'm going to bite you!" barks sounds like but I never learned it.

  6. Hi Abe, Actually, You should worry more about the way a dog looks at you, than his bark. Just because he barks, doesn't mean he'll bite, but if he's growling, he's probably giving you a warning. And then of course there is snarling of the lips, whites of the eyes exposed, stiff legs, hair raised, tail straight out, and ears pinned back. All signs you may be about to be bitten. Now that you know, and I suspect you already did know this, hopefully you won't ever suffer a painful dog bite.