How Well Do Dogs and Humans Understand Each Other? (Part 2 of 2)

_PDP4319-LTo read part 1, click here.

BUDAPEST, Hungary. Senior lecturer Péter Pongrácz of the Family Dog Research Project at Eötvös Loránd University Department of Ethology in Budapest Hungary has studied how much we ‘get’ what dogs are trying to tell us, based on their vocalizations alone. And it turns out even people who have never had a dog are pretty darn good at knowing whether the dog is unhappy about being home alone or is acting aggressive to another dog, for example.

To learn if visual cues counted in any way, Pongrácz included blind respondents who have never seen a dog and they had no problem determining what dogs were “saying.” However, young children didn’t do nearly as well at recognizing what the dog barks meant.

Some researchers have suggested that since people have evolved with dogs, we innately understand the meaning of dog barks. According to Pongrácz’s research, we’re not born understanding “dog language.”

Adults know that when dogs bare their teeth, it’s a sign of aggression. However, young children do not know this. “Perhaps they are comparing this to a smile in people,” says Pongrácz. “After all, when people show their teeth, they’re often happy.”

Ultimately, people do, learn how to decipher barks. “Thousands of years ago, barking evolved as a means to communicate with people to widely and express many emotions,” Pongrácz says.

Barking can also lead to people complaining about dogs, even euthanization for chronic barkers. Pongrácz conducted a study with researchers in Brazil to determine which types of barks are most annoying and disturbing to people. Fast pulsating, and high pitched-sounding barks were most annoying, and equally annoying as annoying to Hungarians as Brazilians.

Humans apparently understand what dogs are trying to tell us, at least adults do – but does it work both ways?

How much do dogs really comprehend us? Lots of work at dog cognition centers around the world are attempting to grasp how much dogs really know.

For example, in the UK retired psychologist John Pilley taught a Border Collie named Chaser to identify 1,022 toys and objects by name. In fact, it appears Chaser can purportedly understand complete sentences.

However, Ádám Miklósi, founder the Family Dog Research Project cautions, “Understanding’ is a very vague term, and I try to avoid it if I can.”

He adds that there’s no question that dogs do respond to tone of voice. You can make the trick to tell many dogs in Hungarian or in English the same sentence or command, and they will perform the same action mostly based the body cues and the context, as well as partially on tone of voice.

While the average canine may not be as brilliant as Chaser, Pongrácz adds, “We learned going back as far as 2001 that dog owners are of the opinion that their dogs do understand them, not only single words but actual sentences. By understand I mean responding correctly as we might expect. So, if I say ‘We’re going to the vet and the dog hides under the sofa.’ However, what we don’t know is what the dog is really understanding.”

Is the dog actually comprehending the sentence, is it one word in that one word ‘vet’ in that sentence, ‘or it all about context, perhaps the only time that a certain leash is used?

“Obviously we don’t have empirical data to understand these claims, “says Pongrácz. “But clearly dogs do truly behave in mays that convince their owners that they really do understand.”

He continues, “Recently our colleagues found with brain imaging techniques that dogs’ brains respond not only to the intonation/emotions, but the verbal content of such words that dogs probably heard previously, and (heard) often. It is important to note however that these brain activations happened mostly when the verbal utterance and the usual intonation with it appeared simultaneously. “

Pongrácz’s work also confirms what dog owners have known for centuries. Dogs are really adept at picking up on our emotional cues. If you feel and act sad, your dog responds one way. If you feel and act overjoyed, your dog acts another way. Dogs do clearly pick up on our emotions. When we’re being funny, our dogs may act playful. However, Miklósi stops short of saying dogs actually have a sense of humor. And he adds, “I know many people who also lack a sense of humor.”

Learn more about the Family Dog Research Project:

©Steve Dale Pet World, LLC; Tribune Content Agency

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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