Science

Breakthrough in Canine Communication

By Anna Dutton

For those who own a dog, or even a furry companion, they will notice that mouth-licking occurs very frequently. There has been a lot of discussion focusing on why dogs exhibit this behaviour, but recent research has brought a new interpretation to light. These findings suggest that our cute companions may be communicating with us more than we think.

In the past, this behaviour has been attributed to a canine stress-coping mechanism, a display of arousal, or a form of communication that signifies how our furry friends want to play with a toy or have a treat. Building on this, researchers in the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil have discovered that this common trait could be a dog’s best asset in assessing and communicating with their owners.

They created a study in which 17 healthy adult dogs were exposed to a series of video and audio cues that symbolise both negative and positive emotions. There were 2 screens, and the dogs were shown both happy and angry human faces, along with angry and happy dog faces. Audio cues all accompanied this. Any sign of mouth-licking was recorded as the dogs watched the presentation.

Results of the experiment found that, ‘visual cues triggered mouth-licking only’ as noted by Natalie Albuquerque. The dogs licked their mouths more when looking at humans as a response to negative human emotions. The mouth-licking as much as doubled when unhappy behaviour was shown. These findings were published in Behavioural Processes, a journal in the field.

These findings are not new, but they suggest a heightened element of intimacy between man and his best friend. The researchers ventured a step further and suggested that this behavioural trait surfaced as a consequence of canine domestication. They argue it has come about as an evolution in communication between dogs and their co-habitants.

The group emphasise the importance of facial communication, and suggest it plays ‘a crucial role’ in the cognition of several creatures. Being able to distinguish between negative and positive facial expressions is an important step in communication, as visual signs are relied on ‘extensively’ as the only way of talking to an animal.

The results of the above study follow the findings of a 2016 study, which found that dogs can match recorded speech patterns to a corresponding facial expression, another example of how communication between canines and humans is more complex than we think.

In summary, these findings, and those of the 2016 study, highlight how the relationship between dogs and humans is a very special one; both parties can understand messages. Learning this is a very useful thing for dog owners, or even pet owners as it means our furry friends can understand us far more than we give them credit for!

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