Babies figure it out early on. They see a toy, point to it and look at mommy or daddy. Being quick learners, parents pick up the plaything and give it to the smart baby, who has quickly figured out how to get what she wants. The pointing is what’s known as a referential gesture. Its goal is to draw attention to something or someone in hopes of getting a specific response.
Many researchers have focused on these referential gestures with humans and with primates, but a new study looks at how our canine friends fit into this equation.
Researchers at the University of Salford in the U.K. observed 37 dogs with the help of their owners acting as citizen scientists. The owners were asked to record their dogs performing “everyday” acts of communication with them over a period of several weeks. Those were things like asking for food, a toy or that a door be opened.
They recorded 242 communication gestures and the researchers analyzed the footage, coding it according to the dog’s perceived goal, how often the dog used that gesture and whether it was successful in getting the dog what he wanted.
The researchers identified 47 unique gestures and then distilled those down to 19 true examples of referential gesturing. Those examples were used more than 1,000 times in the videos of the 37 dogs. Their work was published in the journal Animal Cognition.
What dogs are saying
While looking at what the dogs were trying to communicate, it wasn’t as simple as saying these 19 gestures meant these 19 things. But the research is compelling. Here are some of the most interesting takeaways:
What they really want: The four most commonly used (and the most successful) gestures were requests for petting, food and drink, to get a toy and to go outside.
It’s in the eyes: With all the dogs, the most common gestures involved eye contact. They involved either direct gaze (staring) or gaze alternation (looking back and forth from the owner to the object of its desire).
Every dog is different: Just like people, some dogs have a bigger vocabulary than others. As dog trainer and science writer Linda Case explains about the study, “Dogs varied tremendously in the number and type of gestures that they used to communicate. It was not uncommon for a dog to employ several different gestures (gaze, head turn, pawing, barking) for a single goal and to switch to a new gesture if the first was not successful. Interestingly, dogs who lived with more than one person tended to use a larger repertoire of gestures, perhaps having developed customized ways of communicating with each person.”
And yes, the researchers say, a dog’s ability to communicate with us in all these ways is pretty impressive. They write, “The ability to successfully communicate cross-species is theoretically more cognitively challenging than intraspecific communication since it requires an individual to adjust its behaviours so that the other species is able to understand and correctly respond to them.”