Dog Lovers, Rejoice!

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January 1st, 2011

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Any dog lovers out there? Have you ever wanted to refute someone who claimed “dogs can’t really understand you?”  PBS program Dogs Decoded: NOVA asserts the idea that dogs are able to communicate with and understand humans better than any other animal that we know of.

When humans express an emotion, the right and left sides of their face show very different pictures. The right half is more expressive than the left when displaying all emotions, from happiness to anger to guilt. Therefore, humans have developed something called a “natural left gaze.” This means whenever we are presented with a face, we automatically look to our left to view the right side of their face to see a better display of their emotion. Recent studies with dogs have shown that they use this same mechanism when presented with a human’s face. Yet, when presented with a picture of another dog’s face, Fido treats it as if it is a picture of an object and randomly assesses the picture with no determined natural gaze.  Dogs are the only animals known to display a natural left gaze when presented with a human face, suggesting that they have evolved to understand our facial expressions.  Scientists are becoming more convinced that dogs are able to interpret our emotions better than many people think.

There are a few unique communication tools that only humans possess, such as eye gaze. Humans have almond-shaped eyes with white sclera surrounding the pupil so others are able to follow the direction of one’s gaze. We also use pointing as another communication tool that many other species are not able to utilize or comprehend. Cognitive psychologist Dr. Juliane Kaminski has been performing experiments with both chimps and dogs studying these two communication tactics.  When a chimp is presented with two cups upside down and Kaminski points at the cup containing a reinforcer (such as a food treat), the chimp is not able follow her point nor gaze to pick up the correct cup. Instead, Kaminski notes that chimps tend to make a decision before she even points, supporting the idea that they are not wired to comprehend human gestures. Yet Kaminski performs this same task with dogs and they are able to follow to where her finger is pointing and retrieve a reinforcer. Even when presented with only a gaze at the correct cup, dogs are often able to determine which one Kaminski is urging them to choose.

It’s interesting to think that dogs have evolved to advance the way they communicate with the species that has domesticated them.

Dogs Decoded: Nova – PBS special via Netflix

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