60-Second Science

Dogs Gauge Intention by Human Communication Style

Dogs are similar to babies in their ability to discern an intent by a human to communicate meaningful information. Rose Eveleth reports

Sit, stay, down, no, don't eat that, drop it. Dogs. We pet them, we love them, we talk to them. But are they listening?

Of course they are. And recent research found that dogs are paying attention not only to what we say, but to how we say it.

The study [Ernő Téglás et al., "Dogs' Gaze Following Is Tuned to Human Communicative Signals," Current Biology], used a method commonly deployed on babies: tracking eye movements. If the baby, or in this case the dog, looks at something, it’s assumed that they're interested in it.

The researchers showed dogs two videos. In one, a person looks into the camera and says "hi dog!" in a high-pitched voice before turning towards a plastic pot. In the other, the person avoids eye contact and says “hi dog” in a lower voice before turning towards the pot.

And the dogs looked at the pot more often after the "hi dog!" than after the “hi dog.” Meaning the animated delivery style cues the dogs of an intension to communicate. Dogs thus perceive such intent similarly to babies. Except babies are slightly less likely to dig up the flowers in that plastic pot.

—Rose Eveleth

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Dogs pick up not only on the words we say, but also on our intent to communicate with them, according to a report published online in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on Jan. 5.
Credit: Current Biology, Tégl´s et al.

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