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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13 Comments on Dog Lovers, Rejoice!

  • Is there somewhere else that I could watch the program?
    Any chance it’ll get put on Hulu?
    I don’t have Netflix. :(

  • I wasn’t able to find it on hulu unfortunately, but the transcript for it can be found on this site:
    It’s definitely a worthwhile view though, maybe you can find it at a local library!

  • Thanks for providing the PBS link. I decided to just buy it on DVD rather than search for it.

  • Oh, that puppy’s sooo cute ! :)

  • I really like how you word your article, it was an interesting read. Thanks for posting

  • Great post. When reading your article it’s give me new information that dog can communicate with human. You wrote show that you are an expert in this area. Thanks.

  • After watching this show, I agree. Dogs are obviously social animals. They rely on many pitch sounds (growls, snarls, barks of many pitches etc.) and of course when they make certain sounds a face (teeth baring) etc. also come with that.

    Dogs are great at understanding a humans mood and was stunned to find out that they also use the ‘left gaze.’ Its no wonder dogs and humans have been able to develop such a great relationship over thousands of years ;)

  • great post. I really love it. keep up the awesome work,I will certainly turn out to be a regular visitor of your Post.

  • finally! of course! i heard the piece too! and was glad to see it researched and documented vs just us crazy dog peoples’ insistence that it is certainly so!!!!! interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and what about facial expressions…….any studies proving (what we know to be true) that they smile too??

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