Your dog is trying to tell you something

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Researchers have identified that dogs use 19 specific gestures to communicate with humans, including rolling over, head turning and flicking a toy. (File Photo)
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By Kim Gilliam

As any pet owner knows, though pets can’t actually talk to us, they are pretty good at getting us to do their bidding by using non-verbal signals and cues.  Recent research explored this form of communication in dogs and identified 19 specific gestures they use to ask humans for something.

Whereas previous research focused on dogs’ ability to understand gestures coming from humans, a team of researchers looked at things the other way around: the ability of dogs to produce gestures that can be understood by humans

Kim Gilliam

The researchers observed 37 dogs in their own homes and found that dogs use “referential gestures” to draw a recipient’s attention to a specific object, individual or event in the environment.  These actions were non-accidental and “mechanically ineffective movements of the body which are repeated and elaborated on until they elicit a specific response from an intended recipient.”

Roll over: Rolling onto one side of the body and exposing the chest, stomach and groin.

Head under: Plunge headfirst underneath an object or human.

Head forward: Move the head forward and up to direct a human’s appendage to a specific location on the body.

Hind leg stand: Lift front paws off the ground and stand on hind legs, front paws are not resting on anything.

Head turn: Head is turned from side to side on the horizontal axis usually between a human and an apparent object of interest.

Shuffle: Shuffle whole body along the ground in short movements, performed while in roll over position.

Back leg up: Lifting of a single back leg while laying on one side of the body.

Paw hover: Hold one paw in mid-air while in a sitting position.

Crawl under: Move entire or part of body underneath an object or a human’s appendage.

Flick toy: Hold toy in the mouth and throw it forward, usually in the direction of a human.

Jump: Jump up and down off the ground, human or an object, usually while staying in one location.

Paw reach: Placing a single paw or both paws underneath another object to retrieve an object of apparent interest.

Nose: Pressing nose (or face) against an object or human.

Lick: Licking an object or human once or repetitively.

Front paws on: Lifting both paws off the ground and resting them on an object or human.

Paw rest: Lifting a single front paw and resting it on an object or human.

Head rub: Involves rubbing the head against an object or human on which the signaler is leaning.

Chomp: Involves opening the mouth and placing it over the arm of a human while repeatedly and gently biting down on the arm.

Paw: Lifting of a single front paw to briefly touch an object or human.

The gestures were then categorized by their “apparent satisfactory outcome” – in other words, the dog wanted something, signaled and produced an outcome that resulted in ending the gesture. Those that were most frequently observed were: “Scratch me,” “Give me food/drink,” “Open the door” and “Get my toy/bone.”

The study went on to note “Our results also revealed that dogs call upon a portfolio of referential gestures to indicate a single reward,” which demonstrates that dogs can elaborate on their initial gesture when an appropriate response from the recipient has not been elicited.

This study shows that dogs and humans are doing something remarkable, having had a shared existence for only 30,000 years: they have developed a strong relationship where their interdependence has facilitated successful cross-species communication. 

Pretty terrific to have research confirm what many of us already knew.

Kim Gilliam co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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