Chloe loves the clicker
Born to be a love sponge*

Last week, in How Dogs Read Us, Part 1, I discussed some studies that explore the way dogs decode our signals, an ability that is passed along genetically. This second section,  adapted from the same article for Your Dog newsletter, addresses the fact that not all dogs are equally skilled at reading signals and not all humans are equally good at conveying their intentions.


In his Intelligence of Dogs, psychologist Stanley Coren terms the type of inherited social intelligence that helps dogs read us as “instinctive.” Varying from breed to breed, he says, instinctive intelligence determines a dog’s ability to do a certain “job.” So just as some dogs are naturally good at herding, others are particularly adept at reading their companion humans.

Coren gives the example of Spaniels, explaining, “The ‘span’ in Spaniel stands for Spain, even though none of these dogs were created by the Spanish, because at the time the breed got started, the great lovers of the world were supposed to be from that country.” Thus being loving and affectionate — “sucky-faced” as Dr. Coren puts it — was the prized characteristic for which Spaniels were bred.

In some breeds, the ability to read humans’ signals is part of the skill set required for other tasks. “Retrievers have been bred specifically to stay close to us and watch our faces,” Coren says. “That’s their job, and it’s quite different from that of any of the other sporting dogs.”

Members of the toy group, whose main job description is lap cuddling, are naturally the best at guessing our moods, while terriers fall at the other end of the observation spectrum. “Terriers have the least social skills,” Coren says. “They’re bred to work solo, to go down into a hole by themselves to get badgers.”

(Good thing Frankie can’t read; otherwise he’d use the terrier defense for every act of civil disobedience.)

But dogs of all breeds need to decode human behavior to some extent. How do they accomplish that? To a large degree, through their superior senses, particularly vision.

According to Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, dogs’ color vision is not as good as ours; dogs don’t see red very well, for example. They can discern movement far better than we can, however. Dr. Dodman says, “I know a German shepherd that could leap three feet into midair and snap a wasp in half.”

This gives dogs an edge, both when it comes to the big picture, such as our posture, and the details of our fine motor movements. Dr. Dodman notes that dogs often give men more respect because they have a more forward stance and more assertive gestures, whereas woman are frequently more tentative.

That’s not to suggest dogs are without body language barriers. Although they take species differences into account, especially those of humans they know, dogs generally interpret our gestures in the same way as they interpret those of their fellow canines. That’s fine when humans and canines share the same expressions: a clenched mouth meaning tension, say, an open mouth indicating relaxation or sidelong glances signifying distrust.

It’s when our signals differ that trouble can occur. A wide-eyed stare is regarded as a threat by a dog, for example (it’s also considered rude in some human cultures). And if a human’s smile is particularly toothy, the “teeth baring” might be read as a sign of aggression.

Coren notes that these signal differences are particularly problematic when it comes to children. “Everything kids do is wrong,” he says. “They stare at dogs, run at them and reach out their hands with open fingers. To a dog, an outstretched hand looks look like mouth with teeth.” We shouldn’t be surprised when dogs growl and snap at them. In fact, “The wonder of it all is that they don’t eat our kids,” Coren says.

What saves them? Children tend to move in an awkward way that confuses dogs, according to Coren. Because dogs don’t read them as normal adults, they are less  threatened by them.

Another thing that likely saves children from more attacks is that they smell young, thus bringing out dogs’ protective instincts. Which leads to another important way that dogs read us: scent. Scientists haven’t yet come up with chemical formulas for human emotions but, as the cliche about the smell of fear suggests, different physiological states doubtless have distinct olfactory signatures.

And with their advanced senses of smell, dogs would have the edge on recognizing those signatures. If some dogs can predict the onset of epileptic attacks and diagnose diseases such as cancer by the way humans smell, why wouldn’t we think they could sniff out depression too? In response, dogs bred to please might behave in ways that have produced mood-elevation cues from their humans in the past — a face lick producing a laugh, for example. Those whose jobs don’t include psychological counseling — yes, Frankie, I’m talking about you — might well recognize our blue funks but dismiss them as  “Not my problem.”

* This sucky-faced Spaniel is the charming Chloe, companion and travel-product tester for the equally charming Mary-Alice Pomputius of Dog Jaunt.

8 thoughts on “How Dogs Read Us, Part 2”

  1. It really says something about the patience and tolerance of dogs that more people are not hurt when they do such offensive and frightening things. Truly I am amazed I have only been bitten once, especially given my dog-adoring ways as a child. My parents did their best to lecture me on polite greeting behaviour but I know my five year old self did not always listen. We have so much to learn from our dogs.

  2. I think it’s interesting how my three dogs respond if I’m upset, in three different ways, Ellie, the alpha Akita/Shepherd female ignores me; K.C. the male German Shepherd mix stands close to me; and TeddyBear, the youngest addition, rescued from a mountain pass, he is a male collie/Shepherd mix, and he whines and wants to be petted, which I interpret to mean, hey,”get your mind off yourself!”

    Methinks we need some slightly more neurotic psychologists designing these studies!

  3. Fascinating. I have been “reading” every glance of the new dog–and as he settles in his eyes become ever more expressive (mostly in the “yeah? sez you!” category)–but I wasn’t aware of the subtleties that I should attend to in my own behavior. Voice, I knew. Eyes, I knew. Or so I thought. But your article makes me realize that it isn’t a simple matter of “don’t shout in frustration” and “don’t stare the dog down” but a lot of body language and a lot more nuance in voice and eyes as well. Not to mention predictable body movements. Thanks.

  4. Delilah must have missed that “Retrievers have been bred specifically to stay close to us and watch our faces,” part of the lecture. It’s either that or she doesn’t see as well as she should, which is what I suspect is really the case. 🙁

    1. I hear you! Frankie has both the terrier excuse and the eyesight excuse. And then there are the different personalities within breeds to take into account. Sorry this comment took so long to turn up; it was in my spam bin for some reason.

  5. I would say ,based on that experience, that they can see images on the TV. The experts thought that dogs saw only in black and white for many years. Then, they discovered that dogs can see some colors.

  6. Awww, it’s my little girl! And yes, she was born to be a sucky face — though I have to say that when I’ve been bawling my head off, she hasn’t really noticed. Happily, it’s pretty rare…. Face licks to you and Frankie!

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