Reading Dog's Body Language

   We are very fond of our dogs, if we have one running our household. That means that we are well tuned into their social interaction with other dogs, and sometimes that’s essential if we are going to avoid large veterinary surgeon's bills. Maybe though, if we don’t own dogs, we don’t notice when the initial sniffing and tail wag is turning into play or quarrel.

It goes without saying that as we recline on a park bench and see humans interacting we can read the body language and tell a great deal about the social interaction.  The question that has been worrying Kujal et al during the long winter nights in Finland is how well do we humans do at reading dog’s body language, not just with our own dogs, but with dogs as a species, and they report out in the current issue of PLoS One (1).

The experiment wasn’t designed around asking people what they thought. It was much more adventurous in that they got the big magnet out and stuffed people in it to watch their brains light up when they were watching interactions between people and between dogs – they didn’t do people interacting with dogs and no one was bitten.

They had 20 expert dog handlers/owners and 19 non-doggy people as controls. Their eye movements were tracked as they watched movies of student actors interacting, and then movies of the local dog club dogs interacting. People or dogs moving towards each other was seen as a friendly social interaction, while when subjects move apart that was interpreted as a rather negative social interaction.

Many parts of the brain lit up, but the region that turned out to be interesting was the bits just inside your skull behind the top of your ears. That lit up with everybody when people were coming together, but didn’t do much when the control group of non-doggy people saw two dogs coming together. However, when the doggy types watched dogs coming together, they got just as excited as when the watched two humans approaching each other.

So it seems that if we are doggy people, we have as much interest in the social interactions of dogs as we do in those interactions between people. I had better make it clear that this only applies to watching strangers, dogs or human, and not to watching our friends and neighbors.


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