I'm a Goan woman, working in Mumbai as the founder of a studio called Totem Creative. I try to make the world happier, safer and more meaningful. I believe education, knowledge and awareness, art, writing and creating Social Impact are my means to achieve that end.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Understanding the mutual communication between man and dog - a colloquium paper

24th March 2013 
I am definitely posting this here very late. This is my colloquium paper written during Semester 9 of my course at MIT ID. If you don't know what a colloquium paper is, it's a paper that you write in your final year that shows your growth in thinking as a designer. It can be written on any topic of your choice and has to be more of less than 12 pages of text. I'm not generally very good at writing research papers. It also has to be 'colloquial', which means a characteristic of or appropriate to the spoken language or to writing that seeks the effect of speech; informal. 2. Relating to conversation; conversational. I would love to hear your views in the comment section. Thank-you for reading. 

Nikhita Prabhudesai
Topic: Understanding the mutual communication between man and dog. 
Description: A paper about understanding how dogs have developed ways to communicate with humans over the years, and how they prove to help us become better people and better designers by teaching us love, observation and empathy. 
This paper is written to make people appreciate such an important species and how they contribute to our growth as individuals. 

Guide: Prof. Sanjay Jain


A colloquium paper submitted in partial fulfilment of the Pre Diploma presentation
By Nikhita Prabhudesai, March 2013
Under Graduate Diploma, Animation Design
Mentor: Prof. Sanjay Jain


Through this paper I am studying 1. dogs and their abilities to communicate with mankind  because I want to find out 2. how dogs have developed a way to understand and communicate with humans over the years, in order to help my reader 3. appreciate these creatures and understand their value and importance in our world.

Where ever I go, I see dogs. I notice them, more than I notice people. When I’m walking on the road with a friend, if there is a dog crossing my path, it’s always a distraction. They immediately catch my attention – the way they walk, communicate with us, and ask for us is so interesting to me.
If I see an injured dog, I feel a sudden urge to rush to help it and medicate it, whether it’s mine or a stray dog. I have grown up learning that dogs are man’s best friend, and I’ve never paid much attention to why I feel so close to dogs (and cats). They are such human animals; probably more human than humans themselves! I connect more to dogs and puppies than I connect with human babies! I get a lot of mixed reactions to this, but it’s true! So I decided to write this paper on how dogs communicate with us, because it’s an itch I have to scratch. What is it that makes us so dependent and close to this one species?

I have always been a firm believer in the fact that dogs have the ability to understand us and help us, and that they can successfully communicate with us and that we, knowingly or unknowingly, can communicate with them. A lot of people would find this silly, and brush it aside as something that is not true, and not important. “Stop talking to the dog! He doesn’t understand you!” is what most people say to dog lovers. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate for the idea that dogs are creatures that are actually closer to us than our closest genetic relative – the chimps, and without them, we would have probably not survived so long!

To understand how dogs developed the intelligence to communicate with us so clearly, we have to go back in time and ask - where did they come from?

From wolf to woof (Origin of Canis lupus familiaris)

Scientists are still trying to figure out where dogs truly originated from; the one specific region. But that is not really our main concern – what we do know, is that dogs evolved from wolves. Dogs have 99.8% of the genetic makeup of wolves. Dogs have been around man for at least 15,000 years. That makes the domesticated dog, the longest companion to man, by far!

About 12,000 years ago hunter-gatherers in what is now Israel placed a body in a grave with its hand cradling a pup. Whether it was a dog or a wolf can’t be known. Either way, the burial is among the earliest fossil evidence of the dog’s domestication. Scientists know the process was under way by about 30,000 years ago but do not agree on why. Some argue that humans adopted wolf pups and that natural selection favoured those less aggressive and better at begging for food. Others say dogs domesticated themselves by adapting to a new niche—human refuse dumps. Scavenging canids that were less likely to flee from people survived in this niche, and succeeding generations became increasingly tame. According to biologist Raymond Coppinger - “All that was selected for was that one trait—the ability to eat in proximity to people.”

What changed the wolf to the dog? Was it Nature or Nurture?

A recent study was conducted by Dr. Kubinyi Eniko in Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary where wolf cubs were bred alongside dog puppies to find out if it was Nature or Nurture that changed these animals so drastically in their behaviours. They were treated and loved equally, and were even allowed to sleep in the owners’ beds. At 8 weeks, the differences started to show, the puppies engaged with human activities, but the wolf cubs did not. Wolves did not respond to human tone, touch and body language, the pups did. They were behaving wild and possessive. They didn’t respond to pointing, or even make eye-contact. But the pups were already paying attention to the owner and making eye contact when they were talked to. The wolves started to go for the food even when denied, they started to destroy household objects and could not be contained in the house – they needed to be let out more than often. After 4 months, they had to be returned to the reserve. The owners/scientists realized that it was impossible to tame wolves, no matter how much it is loved and nurtured!

This lead to one major clarification of doubt – the dog is not a socialized wolf at all!  Their differences were studied in social behaviour and cognitive abilities. These domestic abilities are now part of their nature, not nurture! They are 99.8% genetically close to the wolves, and yet – they are so different from them.

This lead to another question – what tamed the wolves, if not the humans?

A remarkable experiment in Siberia tells us how wolves may have evolved to be the domesticated dog. 50 years ago, soviet scientists set up a breeding program to see if they could domesticate foxes, since they are closely related to wolves.

The breeding programs started in 1959 when the foxes were selected from fur farms for the experiment. Dr. Lyudmila Trut, from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Russia, tells us that some of the foxes showed aggressive behaviour or fear, but only 1% showed submissive behaviour. The selective 1% were allowed to become the founding generation of a new breed of foxes. Only the tamest foxes were allowed to breed. Within 3 generations, the aggressive behaviour started disappearing. They started breathing heavily, wagging their tails, and howling in response to the humans. After half a century, and nearly 50 generations later, the foxes are tamer than ever.

One fascinating observation was that along with the change in their behaviour, the physical aspects of the dogs also changed; their tails started to become curly, and with every generation of tame silver foxes, the colours and patterns started changing as well, and their ears became more floppy. In other words, they were starting to look more like dogs!

So, selection against aggressiveness changed the dogs as well.

A lot of people keep saying that the dog you have represents the kind of person you are. That, I’m sure of – is entirely true. 80% of today's breeds did not exist 100 years ago. The reason why dogs are the species with maximum variants is because of us. Some of them are selected by us just for their looks! We have bred and mixed breeds to suit our needs and wants. What we look for in a dog is very personal to every dog lover.

I always wondered what it was about dogs that made me love them so much. I wouldn’t mind admitting here, (if you can keep it to yourself) that if I had to choose between a baby and a dog, I would choose the latter. I cannot describe how easily I can bond with a dog. I always felt I had the ability to talk to them. When I was a child, I used to pretend there was some sort of ‘dog language’ that can be imitated by speech for dogs to understand me. (Of course I hadn’t told anyone about this). I would often help injured dogs and they would ‘communicate’ with me through their language. I could not define this language when I was a child, but I know how I can now.

So I am going to tell you about my dog before I tell you why he must’ve behaved so. I had a Labrador Retriever named Tutu. He was the most handsome and well behaved dog in the world. But that’s not what made him my best friend, my brother, my guardian. Tutu had the best personality in the world. Of course every dog owner will tell you this about their dog, but Tutu was exceptional – or so I would like to believe. He was someone really special to me.

When Tutu was about a few days old, we had heard that the litter was born and we could come and have a look. My mother wanted a male fawn lab, and in the litter there were only two. At the time they didn’t look much different from one another (in even a span of a year, an owner can differentiate his dog from others just by facial features). I had Tutu’s sister/brother in one hand – a beautiful fawn pup. She was so adorable, all of the pups were. But my mother had Tutu in her palm. It had taken us a lot of convincing and persuasion to get her approval on getting a dog. Tutu was sucking the flesh under my mum’s thumb, and at that instant, we knew we wanted him. Tutu had a history of skin problems, but no major health issues. My mum, and all of us instantly felt love for him, and bonded with him immediately. We took him without a second thought.

So I asked my dog owner friends this question – “Why do you feel connected to your dog?”
Here are some of the responses:

“I feel connected because, he is around all the time like to accompany me, and we understand each other more than it needs to connect with somebody.”  –Arvind Jeena
“He's been a part of my entire childhood. I’ve grown up with him. Naturally there is a bond created between us, and even though he cannot speak, his eyes manage to do all the talking.” – Tanika Naik
“Every day he waits for me to get back home and even if it’s been jus ten minutes since I’ve gone out, he shows so much joy that I feel like he's missed me a lot. He's that kid who loves u unconditionally and is happy just to be in the same room.” – Govindan Kurumagattu
“He has been a family member since he was two months – that’s why the connection. He is the first to acknowledge you are home by coming close and rolling around/wagging his tail or expressing pleasure by lifting the bone to invite to play.” – Sanjay Jain
“I feel connected to my dog because he seems to understand me and love me no matter what”. – Sreedevi Mohan

People have a number of reasons why they feel connected to their dog. Sometimes it’s just a first touch, and sometimes it takes years to feel it if you’re not a dog lover. I’ve heard my friends with parents who are afraid of dogs tell me that their moms got used to the dog in a few months after they brought the dog home. That was pretty amazing to hear.

Why are there so many breeds of dogs if they all originated from the Grey Wolf?

The explosion of dog breeds over the past two centuries represents perhaps one of the greatest genetic experiments ever conducted by humans. Distilled from the genome of the wild wolf are animals that differ greatly from each other with the ability to herd, guard, hunt, and guide. Dogs of every imaginable size and proportion exist. Coats alone can be described by colour, texture, length, thickness, and curl. Tails can be described as plumed, curled, double curled, gay (upright), sickled (arching), otter (down and flat), whipped, ringed, screwed, or snapped (American Kennel Club 1998). The diversity in skeletal size and proportion of dogs is greater than any mammalian species and even exceeds that of the entire canid family (Wayne 1986a,1986c). Such variation may reflect simple modifications of post-natal development (Wayne 1986a,1986c), but the specific genetic mechanisms are not well known.

The special bond between human and dog

Now here’s what’s truly shocking about dogs, and how we feel when we communicate with a dog.

In Sweden, Prof. Kerstin Uvnas Moberg from Karolinska Institute has been studying the role of oxytocin in creating the bond between mothers and their mothers. This chemical is produced in a tiny part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as ‘the love chemical’, because its role is just that – it helps us quickly establish a bond with someone. The peculiar thing is - this bond isn’t just established with every individual that we exchange a handshake with. Each time a mother breast feeds, there is new dose of it produced that strengthens this bond. It’s amazing how quickly we feel familiar with someone who is actually a stranger, don’t you think?

Besides child birth, this chemical is produced during orgasms, social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviours. Prof. Kerstin conducted an experiment to prove that a similar reaction takes place in the human body when we interact with dogs. A blood sample was taken from the dog and its owner before and during a petting session. Before, there was nothing. Then you could see a beautiful peak in the level of oxytocin produced between 1 minute and 3 minutes. The surprising thing is - this peak was the same as that seen in breastfeeding mothers! What’s more? This peak was not just present in the human’s, but in the dog’s blood samples as well!

Oxytocin has a powerful physiological effect. It can lower the heart rate and blood pressure and may lead to reduce levels of stress. Recent research in this field is coming up with facts that dogs may even increase a human’s average life span, and heart patients known to have heart attacks are 3-4 times less prone to having attacks if they own a dog, than if they don’t!
This is the unique relationship we have with dogs.

I grew up with this dog. We had just shifted houses and I was already feeling a little lost, but this pup made everything more comfortable for me. I taught him the basic instructions like NO, SIT, GOOD, JUMP. He was a pretty good learner too (Labradors are fast learners). Sometimes it would take a little more – I would imitate my mother’s voice (he was most scared of my mother) and yell at him if he did something terribly wrong, and he would immediately stop it.

He was never really scared of any of us, but he didn’t want us upset, angry or hurt for his actions. He had already started to understand us at the age of 1, and started to communicate with us with different kinds of barks and gestures. His head would tilt to one side, his tail would express a whole lot more things. He would know when we were going on a vacation abroad when he saw our suitcase being packed, and he would sulk in corners and give us a sad look. The little muscle over his eye which formed his brow told me the whole story of how he was feeling. I cannot explain how wonderful it is to have someone understand you without saying a word. This feeling was not one sided, he could simply know what I felt. I know for a fact, that we can communicate with dogs now.

Most dog owners have had the experience of simply glancing at where the leash is hanging, only to find that their dog is now headed for the door in anticipation of a walk. While this seems like an everyday event to dog owners, it has special significance to scientists because of what it indicates about how dogs think. First of all, it shows that dogs have the ability to read human body language. In addition, it shows that dogs feel that our movements and gestures contain important cues as to what will happen next in their world.

For decades, scientists have been studying "social cognition" in dogs. This simply refers to how well dogs read cues in the behaviour of others. As humans, we do this automatically. For instance, we know that when the person we are talking to starts glancing at his or her watch, we had best get to the point quickly. All social mammals have evolved remarkably discriminating ways of reading the signals sent to them by their group members, normally members of the same species. However recent research shows that dogs are surprisingly good at reading certain types of social cues in humans.
(Stanly Coren – Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books on dogs, including How to Speak Dog and Pawprints of History. http://www.stanleycoren.com/ )

So how does the intelligence of a dog compare in the animal kingdom?

New researches discover that in certain ways, dogs may think more like us than any other animal – including the chimpanzees, known to be our closest relatives. Dr. Juliane Kaminsky, cognitive psychologist of Max Planc Institute, Germany shows through revealing experiments how dogs are better at communicating with us than chimps. She observed the chimps and tried to see if they could respond to human gestures like pointing. Two or three cups were placed in front of the chimp, one of which would be hiding an edible treat. Dr. Kaminsky would point to the cup with the treat. The chimps took no note of her gestures, and would make their own decisions anyway without focus. They would make the decision long before she gave the pointing gesture, and didn’t even wait for her information.

Pointing and understanding the human gesture

Daniel J. Povinelli, a psychologist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, found that our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, were initially quite poor at pointing (actually, so were three-year-old human children, though they were better than the apes). However, both the chimps and the kids could quickly learn to read the correct cues. The real surprise came when a team led by Dr. Robert Hare of Harvard University ran the same test on dogs. Since we’re the only species that makes this gesture, it would be remarkable if ANY animal could understand it. They instantly interpreted the signals indicating the location of the food, and went for the cup that was pointed too, only to be rewarded with the treat! Not only was this noticed on older dogs, but even 6 week old puppies! They are four times better than the apes, and more than twice as well as the young children, even if the experimenter was a stranger!

Now the real question is: where did dogs get this talent?

The first guess might be that since dogs are descended from pack-hunting wolves, the ability to pick up social signals evolved to help coordinate the hunt. If so, one would imagine that wolves should be at least as good at the pointing as dogs. However when Prof. Hare tested wolves at the Wolf Hollow Wolf Sanctuary in Massachusetts, he found that they were actually worse than chimpanzees and a lot worse than dogs. The next guess might be that dogs learn to read human body language because they hang out with and watch their human families. This would suggest that young puppies, especially those still living with their littermates and not yet adopted into human families, should be poorer at picking up human signals. Wrong again! Even nine-week-old puppies, still living with their mother and littermates, do better than wolves or chimps. "The punch line is that this ability was not inherited from the last common dog-wolf ancestor, and it does not take tremendous exposure to humans," said Hare in a recent conversation.

The human language

I’m sure a lot of us are familiar with dog lovers who talk to their dog in a squeaky garbled tone which is sometimes used when we’re talking to children. Why do we do that? Is it out of affection? Is it because we think our dogs are stupid? Tutu, my dog just knew when we were talking to him, or talking about him. He would be lying down silently in the room, but his eyes would be fixed on us when we took his name in the conversation. Sometimes when I’d look at him and talk, he would know what I’m trying to say by my tone. Millions of dog owners talk to, or just babble at their four-legged friends every day. And despite the fact that man's best friend doesn't talk back, most pet owners seem to believe they're having some kind of impact when they hold imagined conversations with their canine friends. 

But what do dogs really think of the verbal ramblings? Do they think people are nuts? If so, owners with a unique voice for their pets - usually a couple octaves higher - might be a special kind of crazy. Or maybe not.

"People talk to their dogs because they respond," says Dr. James Serpell, director of the Centre for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. "They alter their attention state. They will look at you, as if they attempt to grasp what you're saying, and they are giving positive feedback in that sense. You're not talking to the sofa - you're talking to something."

Current research suggests that dogs have a social intelligence similar to that of humans from half a year to two years old. In a Hungarian experiment, 16 adult dogs had to watch 2 videos of a woman greeting the dog in 2 ways. She greeted the dog in one of two ways. In the "ostensive-communicative" condition, she used the classic standby when greeting something cute: a high-pitched voice, direct eye contact, and a cheery "Hi dog!" (Both children and animals are more likely to respond to a high-pitched voice, which explains why we can't stop ourselves from cooing and babbling baby talk at cute creatures) Under the non-ostensive condition, the actor opened the video with the same words, but spoke in a low voice and avoided eye contact. While the first scenario carries a clear message of direct communication, the non-ostensive one implies that the human has no intention of sharing information with the viewer. After the communicative greeting, the dogs were more likely to follow along with the human gaze, a behaviour on par with that of human infants.

"Gaze-following behaviour among humans is an early emerging pervasive response and is frequently considered as a window into social cognition of different nonhuman species. For instance, dogs have a robust ability to share attention with humans, and they are very skilful in using human gaze in object choice situations. Dogs are sensitive to the direction of human visual attention and are skilful users of human directional signals that have potential referential significance. Moreover, increasing evidence suggests that dogs show early and infant-like sensitivity to cues that signal the human's communicative intent." – Current Biology (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(11)01393-5)

This behaviour indicates that dogs can indeed tell when we are talking to them. It could also help reveal just how a dog's mind functions.


Animal lovers are often being accused of attributing human characteristics to their pets. Up until recently it used to be considered that dogs and cats are incapable of understanding our words. Finally, for the first time, it has been proven that dogs can in fact understand human speech.

Sure, most dogs understand the basics --"fetch," "sit" and "stay." But if you have the motivation and patience, you will probably be able to teach your dog even more than 100 words. Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychologist who has performed a significant amount of research on the subject of dog intelligence, suggests that well-trained dogs know about 160 words.

One impressive Border Collie, named Rico, knows more than 200 words. Prof. Kaminsky found a Border Collie in Austria, just outside Vienna, that really started her.  Betsy has a vocabulary of over 340 words, pushing the boundaries of what we think dogs are actually capable of. Betsy’s owner says that Betsy started this when she was 4 or 5 months old. An average dog knows 14 or 15 commands, but Betsy was no average dog. This rivals the intelligence and cognitive capacities of a 2 year old child. If you present a picture of an object to a 2 year old, s/he will get you the object when asked for it. Prof. Kaminsky decided this would be a real test for Betsy since her intelligence rivalled that of a 2 year old. In its essence, the picture is very different from the object. It’s a piece of paper, and it’s two dimensional, but it’s representing something; something that is 3 dimensional! But Betsy even got this test right.

Recently, a 2011 case of another Border Collie named Chaser has learned a vocabulary of over 1022 words! Chaser’s master John taught her a lot of words! When he picked 10 toys out of the 10023 toys, he picked a toy she had never seen before. When he told her to fetch the toys, she got 4 toys right. The 5th toy was a toy she had not seen before – a toy named ‘Darwin’. When John told her to fetch Darwin, Chaser took very long to come back. Shockingly, she did, and she came back with the Darwin toy she had never seen before!!

Since Darwin was the only toy among the 6 toys that she didn’t recognize, she had the ability to make the connection! Rico, Betsy and Chaser show that some dogs may possess the intelligence that we never thought was possible!

Eye tracking and facial reading

What’s even more surprising, is that besides the human gesture, dogs are known to pick up even the smallest hints of information – eye-tracking.
Prof. Daniel Mills, from University of Lincoln, London, wanted to discover how dogs perceive us, and read our emotions. When we express emotions in our faces, we don’t do it symmetrically. When we show emotions like anger or sadness, the left side of our face is slightly different from the right. Composited faces of two right sides, or two left sides of our face look very different from each other.



One of the theories is that the emotions are more faithfully presented in the right side of the face, and that’s the side we tune in to. It is observed that we naturally have a ‘left gaze bias’. Eye tracking software demonstrates that when presented with a human face, we nearly always look left first, i.e: the right hand side of a person’s face.

Prof. Daniel Mills thought that this was fairly unique to people, until he tried the experiment on dogs. They were showed human faces, dog faces and animal faces. When they were shown dog faces, they looked to the left or right randomly; but when they were shown the human faces, a remarkable observation was made. They always looked to the left first, and moved their face with the right. Note, that they did not do this with other dogs. This shows that they have acquired a new skill of trying to decode our emotions.

There have been many days I have come home really upset from school, or upset with my parents, and my dog, Tutu has always come to me and laid his head on my thigh comfortingly. He would sometimes lick my tears away. I thought maybe he likes the salt in my tears. My father was closest to him, besides me. He told me Tutu loves sweat because it has salt. I believed so because he was just a dog. But Tutu was not just a dog. He was even more than a person, and everything he did was out of an emotion, except, it wasn’t complex.

New research suggests that dogs really do respond uniquely to tears. In a study published online May 30 in the journal Animal Cognition, University of London researchers found that dogs were more likely to approach a crying person than someone who was humming or talking, and that they normally responded to weeping with submissive behaviour. The results are what you might expect if dogs understand our pain, the researchers wrote, but it's not proof that they do.

"The humming was designed to be a relatively novel behaviour, which might be likely to pique dogs' curiosity," study researcher and psychologist Dr. Deborah Custance said in a statement. "The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."

Dr. Custance and her colleague Dr. Jennifer Mayer wanted to keep it simple. They recruited 18 pet dogs and their owners to test whether dogs would respond to crying with empathetic behaviours. The dogs included a mix of mutts, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a few other common breeds. The experiment took place in the owners' living rooms. Mayer would arrive and ignore the dog so that it would have little interest in her. Then she and the owner would take turns talking, fake-crying and humming.

Of the 18 dogs in the study, 15 approached their owner or Mayer during crying fits, while only 6 approached during humming. That suggests that it's emotional content, not curiosity that brings the dogs running. Likewise, the dogs always approached the crying person, never the quiet person, as one might expect if the dog was seeking (rather than trying to provide) comfort.
"The dogs approached whoever was crying regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of empathic-like comfort-offering behaviour," Mayer said in a statement.

Mayer said that this is not conclusive evidence that dogs feel empathy for humans. However, it does let us know more about their emotional lives and how they perceive us.

When I asked my dog-owner friends if they thought their dogs understood them, here are some of the responses I got.

“Yes. If I’m sad and when I go sit next to my dog he always seems to understand that I'm not doing so good and tries to make me feel better”. – Sreedevi Mohan
“Yes he does! Let me explain precisely; he comes to wake me up for his early morning routine and sometimes if I’m really lazy, I tell him to go wake someone else. He quietly goes to the other room and wakes up my dad! Also, sometimes I just tell him to wait while I’m getting up and dressing; he sits and waits for me to get up, without making a sound. He understands what I say to him”. – Arvind Jeena
“Yes. When told not to do something, he will not do it”. – Tanika Naik
“Even though he may not understand my words, he understands the tone very well. If I scold him, he feels upset and sulks in a corner. Similarly he senses when you’re happy or sad. He also understands a few words; when I tell him that my mom's calling him, he doesn’t bother to check if I'm telling the truth, he just runs to her”. – Govind Kurumangattu
“Yes, he does. He understands tone of my voice and repetition of a message; He also understands the tug in the leash while walking. If the tug is tight he follows and if it is loose he wanders off as he wishes. He also understands words like cheese, paneer, chalo, let’s go, his name, other dogs names. We understand this as he comes near the fridge for food stuff and he tilts his head sideways and perks up his ears to acknowledge the names uttered. –Sanjay Jain

All dog owners will tell you that their dog understands them – and they’re right. Dogs understand us sometimes by our tone, and sometimes by their limited vocabulary of human words. They also understand us by paying attention to even the most subtle cues that we give them unintentionally, like our expressions and our body language.

Human Interpretation of Dog communication

I have already discussed the many ways in which dogs articulate the information we give them – but how do we humans know exactly what our dogs want?
A lot of different experiments have shown that dogs have changed from the wolf in only ways where humans could not understand the wolf. They have adapted to make things very easy for us. They use their eyes, brows, ears, mouth, head, tail, voice-box and body language to tell us what they feel and what they want. Just like they judge us by facial reading and body language, they have developed similar patterns of communication for us to understand them.

How we perceive different dog barks to understand their emotions

Often dog lovers claim they can understand what their dog wants by their bark. Every sound they make is learnt for a purpose. Studies have shown that the grey wolf only made sounds to establish their dominance over territory or food, and sounds to pain. But dogs have developed a variety of sounds – barks, growls, whines, whimpers and howls to make it easier for us to understand them.
Now not only to we understand the general emotion of the dog, but its bark can also tell dog owners and lovers what situation the dog is in, regardless of whether that dog belongs to them or not.

The idea that we can understand barking – almost like a language has always been dismissed by scientists. But a research facility dedicated to understand the human-canine bond in Budapest, Hungary has tried to backup this claim made by dog owners.

Dr. Adam Miklosi of the Eotvos Lorand University recorded the barks of dogs in different situations. Anger, fear, happiness and despair are basic emotions that the dogs wanted to communicate. To prove that humans are capable of understanding specific dog barks, Dr. Miklosi and his team act out different scenarios to provoke the dogs to bark in various ways. When dog owners listened to these recordings, they were able to quickly and effortlessly match the dog’s bark to the emotion that it was feeling!

When they heard a specific whimpering sound, different people replied nearly the same answers. “It’s sad. It’s distressed” “Aww.. It’s anxious” “It’s asking for attention” “He’s probably tied to.. a chain, or something like that?” (Dr. Miklosi had kept the dog tied to a tree.)

When a specific bark was played, “I think it’s playful” “Excitement” “It seems like they’re actually asking their owner for something” “It sounds like it may want a ball/toy she may be playing with?” (Dr. Miklosi’s friend was playing with a ball.)

When an angry bark was made, “Angry” “This is the sound it makes when she sees someone walking along her fence” “It’s a stranger, I think – It’s a stranger encroaching on her territory” (The dog was inside a fence as Dr. Miklosi recorded the bark)

The results of the people’s answers were astonishing. He agrees that most people can successfully determinate 6 basic barks.

“I’ve measured 3 features of this sound – frequency, tonality and the interval between the sounds, and this is probably what the people’s judgement is based on when they are describing the bark in terms of emotional content.” – says Dr. Adam Miklosi.

What’s more surprising, is what this reveals about dogs. Their wild relatives, the wolves only barked as a sign of warning. During the course of domestication, they may have developed their vocals solely for the purpose of communicating with us!

The evidence from these recent experiments confirms what dogs owners have claimed all along.

Clearly dogs know what they’re doing! I’m sure a lot of dog owners would agree with me too, because their dogs have the same psychology, and we know very, very little about dog intelligence and dog emotion than we should. We have always undermined their role in our lives, because they are dependent on us for company and survival, and we take them for granted.

Final words

It’s amazing how things have changed between human and canine over the centuries. Something that scientists had found to be insignificant for so many years is now very crucial to our very existence, as humans. Dogs have not only known to understand and communicate with us, but also save our lives exponentially. They have known to reduce heart attack rates, reduce blood pressure and produce oxytocin in our system and increase life expectancy. They are often advised to be given to cancer patients, heart patients, disabled people and blind people for hope and guidance. There have been so many reported cases of dogs saving their owners lives and risking their own, and vice versa. Dogs have never attacked us without reason – and unlike any other animal, they think a lot like us, and have evolved solely for the purpose of living symbiotically with us. They are genuine and selfless. I could not stress more on the importance of treating these creatures with love and respect.

From my dog, I learnt so many things. I learnt when to respect someone’s space and privacy. My dog did not interfere with me if was entering a bathroom. I learnt how to communicate without words. Tutu would often just sit down for hours, observing us, listening to our conversations and our gestures. Occasionally if we mentioned his name, his eyes would look at us with recognition. He had great patience with children. Most dogs even get jealous when their masters give more attention to a new member or guest in the family, but Tutu was so patient with guests and especially with children. Something told him that they are more vulnerable than us. I noticed how he made his decisions. I watched him express his feelings. They lick your face even after they’ve been left alone all day. I learnt unconditional love, without any expectations. He gave me joy, pain, friendship, loyalty and love. I agree with Louis Sabin, who quoted, “No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich”.
How are these creatures related to us as designers? The very foundation of communication design, or any design for that matter, is communication. And the basis of good communication is empathy. As designers we can’t design, draw or make something that doesn’t connect to our audience/market. There is no purpose behind making a product or a film or a campaign for oneself. It takes a great deal of understanding of empathy to connect with other people. My dog, and all dogs have taught me great empathy. I doubt that I would be so caring if not for my experiences with dogs. I only wish that people adopt dogs in their homes for their own growth as individuals and so that they become better people. Dogs are truly more human than humans.

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” 
Josh Billings
Thank-you all for reading.

Bibliography and Web References

From wolf to woof (Origin of Canis lupus familiaris)

Dog Domestication and the history of taming
‘BBC Woof’ (Documentary)
 ‘Dogs Decoded – NOVA’ (Documentary)

Dog Emotion
‘BBC Woof’ (Documentary)

Dogs Reading Human Cues
‘BBC Woof’ (Documentary)

Dogs understanding eye-tracking and pointing
‘BBC Woof’ (Documentary)

Dog Intelligence
‘How Smart Are Dogs?’ - Nova Science Now Documentary

Human Interpretation of dog communication
‘BBC Woof’ (Documentary)
‘Why We Love Cats And Dogs’ - PBS Nature Documentary

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