Canine Report

Canine Report

By Anne CasselmanNov 22, 2005 6:00 AM


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What Humans Know About Dogs

When dogs bark, people understand. They don’t need to know the dog or even like dogs in general, says Ádám Miklósi, a research fellow in the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. They can tell fairly accurately what a dog is trying to communicate.

To test this, Miklósi and his colleagues recorded barks of the mudi, a Hungarian sheepdog, in six scenarios ranging from play to attack. Thirty-six people were asked to match each recorded bark with the emotional state of the dog and the context in which it was delivered. The listeners scored well, correctly matching deep barks with aggression triggered by an intruder and higher-pitched yelps with the despair of an abandoned dog. “Dog barking was a kind of behavior that emerged with domestication,” says Miklósi. Dogs who could convey meaning through sound—a useful trait to warn the cave clan that trouble was on the way—were favored.

What Dogs Know About Each Other

As any dog lover can tell you, canines are expert at wrapping others around their dewclaws. Alexandra Horowitz, an animal cognition researcher at Barnard College, filmed hundreds of hours of dogs at play. She found that they use many ploys to keep canine playmates in the game. When a dog fails to nab attention, it will escalate tactics from, say, a nudge to a body check. “Their use of attention getters is correlated to the degree of distraction of their erstwhile playmate,” she says. Only after they secure the other’s attention do they signal their intent to roughhouse, often with a bow on extended front legs. Horowitz believes this shows that dogs have a rudimentary version of theory of mind, the attribution of mental states to others. “They don’t just do these play signals randomly or capriciously,” she says.

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