From conveying personal data via scents to using body language to “speak,” dogs are secretly great communicators
By MATTHEW ROZSA – Salon Magazine – 1 August 2021
“Dogs and humans have co-evolved to the point that we can intuit some of each other’s behaviors, such as the desire to go on a walk or the need to use the bathroom. But because our canine friends seemingly cannot convey complex thoughts (to us), their interior lives, thoughts and dreams — or lack thereof — remain mysterious to us humans. What are they saying when they bark at each other? How do they feel when they look at us while panting, or lick us with what seems to be affection? What are they thinking when they sniff random objects — or each other’s butts?
Or are they even thinking anything?
Fortuitously, canine experts have been pondering this very subject for years. And it turns out that scientists and behaviorists actually know quite a lot about dogs’ interior lives — and even what they are “saying” when they bark at each other. Or how they use their anal glands like Facebook pages, in which a sniff reveals a trove of personal data.
Even something as seemingly simple as a bark masks a much more complicated meaning.
They bark primarily when they are alarmed or excited about something, and this is also the context in which their ancestors, wolves, tend to bark, though barking in wolves is less common and much more subdued,” Dr. James A. Serpell, Professor of Ethics & Animal Welfare, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told Salon by email. Hence, barking may serve as a warning to others about a possible threat or danger, making a threat themselves (such as to that pesky mailman) or expressing sympathy for other dogs barking about possible threats or dangers.
Dr. Erica N. Feuerbacher, an Associate Professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal & Poultry Science, told Salon that dogs, like birds, will perform “mobbing calls” meant to call their peers to attention.
“Humans are able to detect differences in some (but not all) dog barks and could often correctly identify the situation the dog was in based solely on its bark (e.g., was it barking at an intruder or was it a happy playful bark),” Feuerbacher explained.
And while humans don’t understand the context and meaning of these barks, their fellow canines likely do. Studies appear to confirm that.
“Few studies have looked at whether other dogs can gain information from the barks of other dogs, but they do seem to respond differently when they hear a bark from a dog barking at a stranger or a dog barking while alone, and they seem to be able to detect individual differences in who the barking dog is,” Feuerbacher said. “They respond differently to familiar and unfamiliar dogs.”
And when it comes to communication, dogs aren’t as voice-centric as humans. In fact, they often use body language.
“Dogs communicate primarily through body language,” Dr. Catherine Reeve, a lecturer on animal welfare and behavior at Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Psychology, wrote to Salon. “A lot of this communication is subtle and goes unnoticed by most owners.”
When dogs bark at each other, according to Reeve, it can mean anything from a request for personal space or desire for play to communicating that it is frustrating about being stuck on a leash.
That said, dogs do not primarily communicate through barking or body language, but olfaction — their sense of smell.
“When sniffing one another, dogs are getting all the information they need about other dogs’ sexual status, health status, age, etc.,” Reeve told Salon.
As Serpell pointed out, canine noses are so sensitive to odors that it is difficult for humans to even conceive of how their perception of reality differs from ours.
“It is hard to fully imagine the world from a dog’s perspective, but not impossible,” Serpell explained. “Humans, after all, possess a sense of smell, even if it is greatly inferior to that of dogs. So while we derive most of the information about the world around us through our eyes and ears, dogs can access an additional layer of information via their noses that we are essentially ‘blind’ to.”
On the other hand, because dogs have poor color vision, our eyes are able to process realities that they are literally blind to.
“I think one of the features they use to identify individual humans or dogs is odor,” Feuerbacher wrote. “I had a dog who had reactivity issues and she occasionally would show affiliative behavior to someone that she didn’t know (which was strange for her) and once she smelled them, they didn’t smell like anyone she knew and then she would bark. We see dogs that don’t like going to see veterinarians do the same thing—if you smell like a vet, they might not respond as well to you.”