Pets and Their Owners: Can They Communicate?


Pet ownership is popular in the U.S., where 72.9 million households report owning either a cat or dog. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, this is an increase of 2.1 percent from last year. Of the two, dogs are the most common human companions. Dogs were the first domesticated animals in human history so it should come as no surprise that it has been suggested that they are capable of communicating with and understanding their owners. Research has suggested that this may in fact be true. Insofar as “communicate” is understood very loosely, dogs and humans can understand each other on both verbal and non-verbal levels. This connection has been seen in tandem with how dog owners tend to anthropomorphize, or personify Fido.

There have been many reports on the benefits of pet ownership for one’s health, however, the majority of Americans do not look at their companion pet as a heath perk. Instead, more people see pets as part of the family. As such, owners have been treating Fido as if he were just another family member. The extent of anthropomorphism can be seen generally in how humans have come to understand dog and cat behavior on human terms. However, anthropomorphism has been even more evident in acts such as creating Facebook pages for pets and dressing them as humans. Some experts argue that personification of pets can be a good thing because it implies a transference of moral accountability, whereas others believe that the practice can go too far and possibly be unhealthy for both human and animal.

Regardless of the moral dilemma, the connection between dogs and their owners has spurred research into the communicative component of dog-owner companionship. Studies have already shown dogs to be attentive to non-verbal cues such as eye movement and gesturing, however, a more recent study found that dogs were able to process emotionally-laden facial expressions. For example, in a study that tracked eye movement of dogs as they were presented with images of positive, negative, and neutral human expressions, they exhibited an observable pattern in eye movement that distinguished between positive and negative/neutral faces.

Another study focused on the evolution of the dog bark. Compared to their wolf relatives, dogs exhibited a much higher variation of barks. Furthermore, the barks could be categorized by mood. The results measured different frequencies for “disturbance” barking versus “play” barking, and found that “disturbance” barking lasted much longer than other types. On the other hand, wolves did not display the same diversity of situational barking. Rather, wolf barks were isolated to just two types: alert and territorial. The ultimate conclusions showed a difference in not only the amount of barking, but also in the types of barking, between domesticated dogs and wolves. Domesticated dogs barked more and exhibited a much larger array of barks. Wild dogs were also observed and their barking behavior mirrored that of wolves.

There is a great deal of speculation as to how these results should be interpreted, and as expected, some interpretations favor a co-evolution model that suggests the facial recognition and bark diversity are a result of dogs’ long history of domestication. Other interpretations have been admirably cautious, and thus hinge on the insistence of further study before drawing definitive conclusions regarding human-dog communication. Regardless, the relationship between humans and their pets remains close and continues to blur the lines between human and non-human.

By Courtney Anderson

Journal of Comparative Psychology
National Library of Medicine
Current Biology

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