Jan. 5, 2012 -- Dogs may be as receptive to certain human communication signals as infants are, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.
Hungarian researchers found that dogs' eyes follow where a person is looking if the person first communicates with the dog, such as through eye contact.
The researchers showed 29 dogs a series of videos depicting a person turning toward a pot. If the person looked in the direction of the dog and said, "Hi, dog!" in a high-pitched voice before looking at the pot, the dog was more likely to follow the human's gaze and also look at the pot than if the person didn't look at the dog and only said, "Hi, dog," in a lower-pitched voice. The dogs' eyes were followed with an eye tracker.
This phenomenon, known as gaze-following, is well-documented in infants and young children, the authors wrote.
"Our findings reveal that dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to human infants," co-author Jozsef Topal of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences said in a journal press release. "Increasing evidence supports the notion that humans and dogs share some social skills, with dogs' social-cognitive functioning resembling that of a 6-month to 2-year-old child in many respects."
Veterinarians and animal behavior experts not involved with the research said that while it may seem obvious that dogs are able to follow nonverbal cues, this is one of the few studies that offer scientific proof about dogs' ability to communicate.
"In living rooms and backyards across America, we've known these things to be true, and now we have some numbers to prove it," said Marty Becker, an Idaho-based veterinarian and author of "The Healing Power of Pets."
"Like a baby does to the mother, when dogs lock on the face and the person looks to the side, the dog will follow the look -- they have this same communication signal," said Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Center at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in N. Grafton, Mass. "They are looking for an expression of what the person is thinking."
"This is another example of a supposed barrier between animals and humans being knocked down by research," he added.
Becker, also a columnist for Vetstreet.com, added that, as many dog owners and trainers can attest, dogs are attuned to nonverbal cues.
"It's written all over you -- it's the way your shoulders are held, it's the cadence of your walk. They respond to those signals before they respond to your voice."
Using a car analogy, Becker explained that one of the most powerful nonverbal cues, as the study suggests, is a human's gaze.
"The gaze is like the steering wheel that sends the dog in the right direction. The voice is the accelerator."
Because of the similarities between young children and dogs, Becker isn't surprised at how dog owners treat their precious pooches.
"A recent survey said that 80 percent of people consider themselves their pets' mom and dad. They're treating their four-legged children like their two-legged children."