“Dogs are especially skilful at comprehending human communicative signals. This raises the question of whether they are also able to produce such signals flexibly, specifically, whether they helpfully produce indicative (‘showing’) behaviours to inform an ignorant human. In experiment 1, dogs indicated the location of an object more frequently when it was something they wanted themselves than when it was something the human wanted. There was some suggestion that this might be different when the human was their owner. So in experiment 2 we investigated whether dogs could understand when the owner needed helpful information to find a particular object (out of two) that they needed. They did not. Our findings, therefore, do not support the hypothesis that dogs communicate with humans to inform them of things they do not know” (Kaminski et. al, 2011).
This study was conducted recently at the Max-Planck Institute in Hungary and offers helpful insight into potential motivating factors dog have when communicating with humans. The study, “Dogs, Canis familiaris, communicate with humans to request but not to inform” (Kaminski et. al, 2011) beautifully illustrates the need to be cautious and cognizant of the assumptions we make about dog behavior, because such assumptions may lead to jumps in logic about what dogs are actually capable of intellectually. In this study researchers explore whether the “showing behavior” seen in dogs is reflective of intention to inform a human subject or, instead, a way to show a human subject an object’s location in order for the dog to obtain it; otherwise considered a begging behavior (Kaminski et. al, 2011). “Showing behavior” has been demonstrated in a few studies and Adam Miklosi coined the phrase in 2000 to cover the various types of behavioral displays seen in dogs, such as pointing, gazing, and glancing at an object (Kaminski et. al, 2011). This behavior refers to the phenomenon where dogs display behaviors to a human in order to indicate the location of a desired object. An example of “showing behavior” is when a dog alternates her gaze between the location of a desired object (i.e. dog toy) and a human’s face/eye area (Kaminski et. al, 2011).
The results of this study confirmed my personal suspicion that dogs are not intending to inform the human subjects but are more likely (and so honestly) communicating a desire to obtain an object of interest. These results highlight the importance of remaining grounded when observing dog behavior so that we avoid jumping to conclusions. Remaining vigilant in this manner is challenging of course, especially when a dog displays a behavior that excites us because of its potential implications. As an aside, an ingenious dog guardian once noted that this “showing behavior” could be interpreted as potential evidence for “tool use” by dogs, which appears far more likely than a dog displaying the “human-like cooperative structure of informing” (Kaminski et. al, 2011). Creating an experiment to test tool use in dogs would be a hugely enlightening study.
References (If you simply google the title of the below study you should be able to find a way to access it free of charge, otherwise email me for a pdf):
Kaminski, Juliane, and Martine Neumann, Juliane Brauer, Josep Call, Michael Tomasello (2011). “Dogs, Canis familiaris, communicate with humans to request but not to inform.” Animal Behaviour 82 651-658.