So one might say that today’s blog post will have virtually nothing to do with linguistics, but I am confident that the pet-owners and animal-lovers out there world be quick to disagree. It is about man’s best friend -dogs- and the degree in which they understand human body language. Whether we own a pet dog or not, we have all encountered the question of communication and its level of ingenuity, especially with a dog (or any other domesticated animal) that one has grown up with for an extensive period of time. The animal becomes an integral part of your life and no longer exists as a mere animal, but a friend, child, a fellow human being. But is this evolution in relationship just all in our heads? Are those crazy “cat ladies” actually really crazy? Well, maybe. But according to a new study, apparently dogs do understand the language of human motions and body language a lot more than we think. But it depends on the manner in which the cue is displayed, which hypothetically holds implications for the evolutionary precursor behind domesticated animals such as dogs.
The science paper is titled “Do Dogs Make Counterproductive Choices Because They Are Sensitive to Human Ostensive Cues?”, and you find the original paper here. What are ostensive cues? They are overt and demonstrative markers of communication, in this case through the language of human body language. The Italian scientists (yes, Italian) whom authored the paper acknowledged the general perception that dogs are in fact sensitive to human ostensive communicative cues, but the degree in which this sensitivity exists is still a matter of much debate. “There is evidence for instance that dogs can be led into making evaluation errors in a quantity discrimination task, for example losing their preference for a larger food quantity if a human shows a preference for a smaller one, yet there is, so far, no explanation for this phenomenon.” So the scientists used the portion sizes of food as the fundamental variables of this experiment. In the words of a summary article from Mentor Patch, “one hundred forty-nine dogs and their owners were involved in the experiment, which allowed each dog to choose between a plate with one tasty morsel and a plate with six tasty morsels of food…those who weren’t distracted by humans (the non-social cue of the experiment) chose six pieces 73 percent of the time. But when a human being approached and exhibited some type of favoritism (the social and communicative cue)… dogs began to think outside the box…the smaller portion tended to win, especially when the single piece was held up to the human’s mouth.”
So what do the scientists garner from these results? “Results show that dogs’ evaluation errors are indeed caused by a social bias, but, somewhat contrary to previous studies, they highlight the potent effect of stimulus enhancement (handling the target) in influencing the dogs’ response. A mild influence on the dog’s behaviour was found only when different ostensive cues (and no handling of the target) were used in combination, suggesting their cumulative effect.” In the words of the Mentor Patch article, “researchers believe it’s all evolutionary — either dogs were domesticated because they seemed to understand social cues, or those dogs that demonstrated the ability to understand social cues were domesticated. Which one of those solutions is still undetermined.” Which solution do you think is the case? Do dogs merely respond out of nature, or do they grasp the motivation and desires behind cues exhibited by humans, much like cues established between human infants and adults? As always, we are curious to know what you think! Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts. If you have any questions about Ad Astra, Inc., please contact Daniel@ad-astrainc.com