A blog article by Karissa Panzino
Nearly half of households in the United States own animals. Among the most popular and most beloved pets are dogs, with one source citing more than 77 million canines in the US alone¹. However, relatively little is understood about the mechanics of human-animal interaction. Referred to in science as interspecies communication, this is the field of animal behavior that explores how different species interact with one another.
Species interact with other members of the environment regularly. Some forms of interspecies communication are common; birds utter warning cries that awakens the whole forest to danger, fish work to clean whale’s teeth, and dogs use puppy eyes to beg humans for table scraps. Science is just beginning to explore the mechanics of such communications, and much of this has focused on human connection with our canine companions.
It is relatively well accepted that canines are domesticated from wolves. While there are many similarities between wolves and canines, understanding the differences can help us learn more about what makes dogs so unique. To understand how wolves and dogs interacted with other members of their own species, researchers raised packs of wolves and canines in identical conditions and then tested their behavior when presented with a high-value meal².
While all the wolves showed some signs of food aggression, all members of the pack were able to eat with minimal incident. To the contrary, a few dominant canines controlled the entire food stock, showing hostility to more submissive pack members. Simply put, wolves seemed to have a better understanding of expected behavior within the pack while the canines looked for social cues from the leader – in this case, the dominant dog. This tendency of canines to default to a leader or ‘alpha’ may partially explain why humans and dogs match so well. It also underscores the importance of establishing successful communication between humans and canines.
The ability of canines to read and react to cues may partially explain why dogs are such good communicators. The extent of this communication varies by each dog-human pairing, or dyad.
Some dogs are working animals and may be responsible for tasks such as keeping watch over flocks of farm animals, acting as police or military guards, or providing a service to a human handler. In these cases, it is easy to see the communication between human and canine – in the former examples, handlers issue commands to the canine that are then executed, and in the latter, canines notify their charge by using a predetermined signal.
Companion dogs also show clear communication with their owners. Scratching at a door to go outside, whining for attention, or barking at a stranger are all ways in which dogs communicate with their humans³. Of course, not all forms of communication are desired or welcome. A puppy leaving a puddle on the floor may tell the human that they are excited to see them but is not a good way to say hello.
In fact, these undesired behaviors and the inability of humans and their dogs to communicate are responsible for a large percentage of canine abandonment and euthanasia. Clearly, learning how to understand and communicate with our dogs is an important part of having a good companion experience.
One study conducted in partnership with a veterinary behavioral specialist explored the relationship between owner behavior and animal behavior. The specialist utilized a variety of behavioral assessment scales in the form of a survey to evaluate the owner’s attachment to the dog as well as the issues the dog was experiencing.
They found that the stronger the bond between human and animal, the more likely the canine’s behavior was to improve over time¹.
This suggests that human behavior is important to effective canine communication.
Perhaps more interestingly, canine behavior may also act as a predictor to human communication. A survey of handlers with working dogs in the Paris Fire Brigade revealed similarities between canines and their handlers5.
Correlations between owner and canine personalities were reflected in the personality surveys employed, and certain human behavior traits seemed to impact the improvement of a canine’s ability to complete a task over time. However, it is difficult to tell whether personality types seemed to match because the human-canine pair had a better fit initially, or if human-canine personality changes over time to better coexist with one another.
Dogs tend to perform better when given a consistent routine and exercise. Many times, undesired behavior is the result of the dog simply not knowing a better alternative. The puppy that wets itself when the owner comes home needs to be taught to go outside to urinate. Not much data is yet available on the impact of human education to combat canine behavioral problems4. However, we know that consistency is key when training new behavior for a canine, and that correcting unwanted behavior is paramount to developing good habits.
Research shows that routine has a strong impact on human child development, and scales used to test human routines have been adapted to test the same theories with canines5. Using the adapted reporting scale to assess the routines of canines showed similar results, though more research is still needed to confirm this information.
Animal behavior science is still a rapidly developing field, and more is being learned all the time. Reporting scales are being developed, but many of these have not yet been validated in research³. Understanding the dynamics of human-canine interaction is especially important because of their proximity and importance to our everyday lives. There is much to suggest that deepening our understanding of interspecies communication can benefit human behavior. Knowing how best to communicate with our canine companions can help create productive and satisfying outcomes for all involved. Better communication means less behavior issues, leading to fewer abandoned pets and a greater sense of well-being for dogs and people. It allows them to foster more fulfilling relationships, from a handler better able to provide directions for their working canine to a new owner training their puppy proper manners. And if nothing else, perhaps the phenomenon of personality matching within human-canine dyads can explain why some owners appear to look like their dogs.
And if nothing else, perhaps the phenomenon of personality matching within human-canine dyads can explain why some owners appear to look like their dogs.
(1) Powell L., Stefanovski D., Siracusa C. and Serpell J. (2021) Owner Personality, Owner-Dog Attachment, and Canine Demographics Influence Treatment Outcomes in Canine Behavioral Medicine Cases. Front. Vet. Sci. 7:630931. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2020.630931
(2) Range F., Ritter C., and Virányi Z. (2015) Testing the myth: tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves. Proc. R. Soc. B.282 : 20150220. 20150220
(3) Panzino, Karissa, “Interspecies Communication in Homo Sapiens and Canis Lupis Familiaris: A Meta Analysis” (2017). Honors College. 270. https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/honors/270
(4) Van Herwijnen, I.R. (2021) Educating dog owners: how owner-dog interactions can benefit from addressing the human caregiving system and dog-directed parenting styples. Behaviour, 17 Mar 2022, https://brill-com.wv-o-ursus-proxy02.ursus.maine.edu/view/journals/beh/158/14-15/article-p1449_8.xml
(5) Hoummady S., Péron F., Grandjean D., et al. (2016) Relationships between personality of human–dog dyads and performances in working tasks. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 177, 2016, Pages 42-51, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.01.015.