How dogs ‘read’ humans Print E-mail
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Friday, 14 August 2020 09:48
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merw

When I returned to work, having to wear a mask, I was quite cautious in the beginning when interacting with strange dogs as I thought that they would be unable to ‘read’ me with the mask covering the lower half of my face.

To my surprise, I realised after a few days that the mask made absolutely no difference to the dogs. They didn’t seem nervous or skittish. I then realised how dogs rely on so much more than our facial expressions to read us.

I’ve always told clients to relax because the dogs feel their stress, but this truly brought it home to me how finely tuned dogs are to our body language and feelings.

All animals are wired to read subtle signals in the group dynamics of their own species as well as in other species. Their health and survival depend on it. As humans we are like a bull in a china shop in comparison to the nuanced lifestyle of animals.

I’ve already told the story of how I tried to evade the hysteria of trying to get out the gate and go for a run without the dogs, by wearing my running clothes under a dress and throwing the running shoes over the wall. This fooled no-one. The dogs were already milling around me in an excited frenzy as I was exiting the front door. They knew! Yet when I go out to work in the garden or take out the bin, there is no excitement. How on earth do they know?

Most dog owners have had the experience of just glancing towards the place where the leash is hanging to find that the dog is already waiting at the door. How many homes do we know where walk is not a word, but a spelled out w.a.l.k, also to no avail. Our movements and gestures contain important cues for dogs as to what will happen next in their world.

Social cognition in dogs refers to how well dogs read behavioural cues. All social mammals have evolved special ways of reading the signals sent to them by their group members, normally members of the same species. As humans we also do this, almost automatically, and it is some of this ability that is unavailable to people with autism.

Research shows that dogs are surprisingly good at reading certain types of social cues in humans.

More so than chimpanzees, our closest relatives, or wolves, closely related to dogs. The experimental set-up was to place a small piece of food under one of two upturned buckets, making sure both buckets smelt of the food. A cue was given to the subject as to which bucket had the food. The experimenter tapped on it, pointed a finger at it or, more subtly, tilted his head or body at it, or, most subtly, just looked towards the bucket with the food under it.

Surprisingly, the researcher found that our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, were initially quite poor at this task, although they did learn. The same performance as that of a three-year old child.

Dogs could immediately interpret the signals indicating the location of the food four times better than the apes and more than twice as well as the young children, even if the experimenter was a stranger.

Where did dogs get this talent? The first idea might be that dogs are descended from wolves, which are pack hunters, with social signals evolved to help coordinate the hunt. If so, one would imagine that wolves should be at least as good at the bucket task as dogs. However, when they tested wolves they found that they were actually worse than chimpanzees and a lot worse than dogs.

The next idea might be that it is a learned behaviour in dogs to read human body language because they live with and watch their human families. This would imply that young puppies would not be as good as older dogs in picking up cues. However, even nine-week old puppies were better at this task than chimpanzees or wolves.

So, dogs’ ability to read humans is not inherited from their closest ancestors; neither does it require long-term exposure to humans. This ability could be part of the evolutionary changes that accompanied the domestication of the dog.

Here there are also two theories – specific dogs may have been chosen because they understood people better or the ability to read human behaviour was an unintended by-product for some other selection criteria for domestication, such as decreased aggression. Genes don’t occur in isolation:

There are often links and activating or blocking factors from other areas on the genome to allow expression of a characteristic.

Regardless of what the exact reason is, our domestic dog is not just an urban-dwelling wolf that has developed a veneer of civilization to get free room and board. Rather, the dog is a separate species that has co-evolved with humans.

I was brought up with the expression: Don’t trust someone your dog doesn’t like. There is truth in this statement after all. Our dogs are fine-tuned human-reading machines.

Some of the content is drawn from ‘How to Speak Dog’ and ‘Pawprints of History’ by Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. His website is

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