Dogs pick up our intent to communicate at a glance
Evidence that humans and dogs share some communication skills
Dogs respond to human communication in much the same way as very young children, by picking up not only the words we say but also our intent to communicate with them, according to a new study.
The findings published online Thursday in the journal Current Biology, likely confirm what many dog owners and trainers already know and might help explain why so many people treat their pets like children.
Study author Jozsef Topal of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences said there is increasing evidence that humans and dogs share some social skills, with dogs' social-cognitive functioning resembling that of a child between six months to two years of age.
"Dogs, as well as human infants, are sensitive to cues that signal communicative intent," he said.
These cues include verbal messaging and eye contact, although it's still unclear whether dogs use similar pathways in the brain as infants do to process them.
For the research, Topal's team showed dogs two video recordings of a person turning toward one of two identical plastic pots while an eye tracker captured information on the dogs' reactions.
The study was the first to use eye-tracking technology to study dogs' social skills, said Topal. "By following the eye movements of dogs, we were able to get a first-hand look at how their minds are actually working."
In the first video, the person first looked straight at the dog and called to it in a high-pitched voice, "Hi, dog!"
In the second video, the person said only a low-pitched, "Hi, dog," while avoiding eye contact.
Dogs were more likely to follow along and look at the pot with the first video, where the person expressed intent to communicate with them.
"Our findings reveal that the dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to human infants," said Topal.