A Way Without Words: Interpreting Canine Gestures

June 21, 2018
Kerry Lengyel

A new study is one of the first to record and analyze the referential communication abilities of dogs when interacting with people.

Dogs “speak” mostly with their bodies, often relaying very little information by actually using their vocal cords. And while investigators have consistently studied canine body language, it has been an extremely difficult task to decipher what dogs are trying to communicate.

In an attempt to crack the code that is our canine counterparts, a research team from the University of Salford in Manchester, England, has been observing canine behaviors and gestures. Their findings, recently published in Animal Cognition, entail an understanding of 19 distinct gestures performed by domestic dogs during everyday interactions with people.

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“Our study exposes impressive gesturing abilities in a non-primate mammal,” the investigators wrote, “especially when viewed in the context of the cross-species rather than intraspecific communication.”

Analyzing Video Data

For the study, investigators enlisted the help of 37 pet dogs and their owners. The owners must have had their dogs for a minimum of 5 months before the start of the study. Each owner was asked to record various videos of their dogs performing “everyday communicative bouts,” such as requesting food, playing, asking to be pet, etc.

In total, the participating owners collected 242 videos of their dogs. The investigators then analyzed each of the videos, initially identifying 47 potential referential gestures performed by the dogs. The research team then applied their 5 features for referential communication criteria to each of those videos, which state that the gesture must 1) be directed toward an object of the signaller's body, 2) be mechanically ineffective, 3) be aimed at a potential recipient, 4) receive a voluntary response from that recipient, and 5) demonstrate hallmarks of intential production. After doing so, the investigators ended up with 19 different canine gestures.

Deciphering the Gestures

All 37 dogs were observed using referential gestures in at least 1 of 4 apparent satisfactory outcomes (ASOs): “Scratch me!” “Give me food/drink,” “Open the door,” and “Get my toy/bone.” The most common gesture observed was a head turn, used by 35 of the 37 dogs in the study across all 4 ASOs.

What did the dogs try to convey the most? Being scratched produced the largest number of referential gestures (14), followed by feed me (11), play with me (11), and open the door (10).

There were variations between the gestures each dog made, and some gestures were used by dogs for more than 1 ASO in different contexts. Below is a list of some of the most observed gestures for each ASO during the study:

“Scratch Me!”

  • Licking an object or human once or repetitively
  • Pressing nose or face against an object or human
  • Turning head side to side on the horizontal axis, usually between a human and an apparent object of interest
  • Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human

“Give me food/drink.”

  • Head turning from side to side on the horizontal axis, usually between a human and an apparent object of interest
  • Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human
  • Holding 1 paw in mid-air whilst in a sitting position
  • Pressing nose or face against an object or human
  • Lifting both paws off the ground and resting them on an object or human

“Open the door.”

  • Head turning from side to side on the horizontal axis, usually between a human and an apparent object of interest
  • Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human
  • Lifting both paws off the ground and resting them on an object or human

“Get my toy/bone.”

  • Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human
  • Head turning from side to side on the horizontal axis, usually between a human and an apparent object of interest
  • Plunging headfirst underneath an object or human
  • Placing a single paw or both paws underneath another object to retrieve an object of apparent interest

“The current study has shown that dogs (and humans) are doing something remarkable, having had a shared existence for only 30,000 years,” the investigators wrote. “The ability to successfully communicate cross-species is theoretically more cognitively challenging than intraspecific communication since it requires an individual to adjust its behaviors so that the other species is able to understand and correctly respond to them.”