How Dogs Interpret Human Body Language

May 21, 2015

body language quinnBy Langley Cornwell

We all know how powerful a dog’s sense of smell is. In fact, smell is a dog’s primary sense; they interpret the world predominately through their olfactory system while humans interpret the world predominately through our visual system. Even so, both humans and dogs use senses to understand what’s going on around them. But did you know that, just like humans, dogs rely on more than just their senses to figure things out? Dogs are experts at reading body language, and not just each other’s. In the same way that humans have learned to read canine body language, dogs can read human body language. Our movements, posture and even our glances tell our canine companions a lot about what we are thinking and feeling.

Have you ever glanced over at your dog’s leash? If your dog sees you look at his leash, what does he do? My dogs jump up and run to the door, ready to go on a walk. I used to think their reaction was based on the time of day, because we usually keep a pretty regular walk schedule. To rule that out, I looked at the leash random times and got the same reaction. Because I didn’t say the tell-tale “w” word, I knew they were not reacting to my verbal cue. And because it was at an unusual time, I knew they were not reacting to a specific time of day. No. They were reading my body language!

Social Cognition

Social cognition is a popular field of study, and research into a dog’s ability to pick up on human behavior signals is thriving. It’s long been understood that most social mammals are adept at reading cues from members of their same species, but the study of social cognition recognizes that dogs are amazingly good at reading human body language. A dog’s social cognition crosses species type.

Test for Yourself

One of the simplest tests you can do at home is to start with two cups turned upside down. Make sure both cups smell the same by smearing a bit of CANIDAE canned dog food around the rim of each. Then plop a spoon full of food under one of the cups. Do all this while your dog is out of the room. Then bring him into the room and give some sort of indication as to which cup is hiding the food.

There are many ways to use body language to direct your pup to the correct cup. The most apparent cue would be to tap the cup with the food underneath. If your dog gets that right, move to a less obvious cue – point at the proper cup. Then move on to a subtler indication by simply cocking your head in the direction of the cup with food. When he nails that, don’t even tilt your head but simply look at the correct cup. You may be surprised at how well your dog reads your body language, even when it’s incredibly subtle.

The Experts

Daniel J. Povinelli, a psychologist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, conducted this same experiment with chimpanzees and found that at first they were not very good at reading human social cues. To add depth to his study, Povinelli ran the same test with three-year-old kids. While better than our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, young children were also not very good at this initially. Both the chimps and the children, however, learned to read the correct cues quickly.

Robert Hare and a team of researchers at Harvard University conducted this same test on dogs and there it was: dogs were able to instantly interpret the human’s body language four times better than the chimps and more than twice as well as the three-year-olds – even if the human was a complete stranger.

The Big Question

Because it was proven that dogs can read human body language better than other animals and even better than young children, the big question is how? How did our canine friends develop this skill?

An obvious theory was that dogs developed this talent in the wild, when packs of wolves depended on social cues from one another to coordinate hunting. This was debunked at the Wolf Hollow Wolf Sanctuary in Massachusetts, when Hare ran wolves through the upside down cup test. Wolves did much worse than dogs, and worse than children and apes too.

Another theory was that dogs spend so much time with humans that they develop this ability as a means of increased interaction and, therefore, more favorable living body language loriconditions. This was debunked by running the test on puppies that still live with their littermates and spend little or no time with humans. Nine-week-old puppies with limited human exposure scored higher on the test than the children, chimpanzees and wolves.

So the talent wasn’t inherent from the dog-wolf days and wasn’t developed via human interaction. The answer to the big question is: we don’t know how or why dogs have an uncanny ability to read human body language, but we know they can. Extremely well. Of course, that doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who share our lives with dogs.

Is your dog a keen observer? What signals does he interpret from you?

Top photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr
Bottom photo by Lori/Flickr

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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