Research shows our ability to communicate with dogs is learned

A recent study is teaching us more about how we communicate with our canine companions.

As animal parents, we have a special connection with our dogs. We can communicate with them through tone, body language, and facial expressions. On the flip side, our dogs are genetically wired to understand us, thanks to their long history of domestication.

Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans, so their connection to us has deeper roots than those of any other animal. It’s believed dogs were first domesticated almost 40,000 years ago, when they were used for tracking and hunting prey. Today, dogs play more nuanced roles in our lives and have developed communication skills that help humans in very real ways. They can offer us emotional support and provide valuable assistance to us as service dogs.

However, a recent study by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History suggests that our ability to communicate with dogs is not something we are born with. Rather, it’s dependent on how we are raised – whether or not we have a personal history with dogs and if we live in a dog-friendly culture.

In the study, 166 participants (89 adults and 77 children) were ranked by their experience with dogs in the past, as well as whether their cultural context was “dog-positive”. They were then shown photos of dogs, chimpanzees and humans in different emotional states (happiness, sadness, fear or anger). Participants were then asked to determine the emotions being displayed in the photos.

The study found that adults who had experience with dogs were more likely to correctly recognize a canine emotion than adults or children with less experience.

The researchers concluded that having a “dog-positive” cultural background — one in which dogs are closely integrated into human life and considered highly important — may make humans more inclined to recognize their emotions and to communicate better with them.

So if you want to hone your own canine communication skills, spend more time with dogs!