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Dog talk

30 April 2012

Many a comedy routine has been built around the relationship between human beings and dogs. It has been “observed” for instance, that were an alien race to be observing what goes on here on planet Earth, who would they assume to be the dominant species: the ones doing the poop or the ones walking around after them picking up the poop? The answer is obvious: dogs rule the world, and a new study has shown why.

The planetary eminence of dogs is confirmed with a quick glance down the aisle in any given supermarket carrying the many varieties of dog food hoping to please a canine palate. Add to this the bewildering array of pooch paraphernalia (entailing everything from winter jackets to spandex jump suits to diamond encrusted chew toys), the easy availability of cosmetic procedures at your local vet, and the accessibility of counselling services for stressed mutts. There are those who wonder at this catering to all things canine but a new study has shown exactly why we pander to pooches; they communicate like a two-year-old human.

To establish this, researchers presented dogs with video recordings of a person turning toward one of two identical plastic pots while an eye tracker captured information on the dogs’ reactions. In one condition, the person first looked straight at the dog, addressing it in a high-pitched voice with “Hi dog!”. In the second situation, the person gave only a low-pitched “Hi dog” while avoiding eye contact. The dogs were more likely to follow along and look at the pot when the person first expressed an intention to communicate with eye contact and a more friendly pitch of voice.

This shows that dogs use non-verbal cues like eye contact and voice tone to establish meaning in a social situation which is exactly the level that a six-month to two year-old human child operates at. So a dog is like another toddler in your home.

Much of this is no news to dog owners who have long known the capacity for understanding of their pet but it is the first time that eye tracking technology has proven this in the laboratory setting.

None of it of course is any excuse for dressing your dog in clothes to match your own, carrying your dog in a pooch-pouch, or engaging in deep and meaningful conversations with your canine companion; there are some things in life that are inexcusable. While it does not excuse it though, it might explain why some among us choose to treat their furry friends like a child.