Reading Humans

One way dogs really are better than cats

Jens Aarstein Holm
Jens Aarstein Holm


In a misguided effort to liven things up for our indoor cat, I often point out critters known to squat in our Chicago apartment: Look, a spider! But while my pointer finger gets head-butted, licked, or otherwise attended to, the spider goes about her day, unseen.

With a dog it would be different—though cats shouldn’t feel bad. When it comes to reading human gestures and eye gazes, dogs have the edge over every non-human animal in the kingdom.

In the most common test of a dog’s innate abilities, a treat is slipped into one of multiple opaque containers; in order to win the treat, the dog must determine, with the help of a human, just which container. When the human points to the correct location, dogs do great. But they also succeed when someone merely nods in the right direction, or places a marker by the right container, or points to the right container while walking toward the wrong one.

Dogs quite capably interpret eye gaze as well. This allows them to follow a gaze to the desired location—but the ability can also be put to more nefarious use: dogs are likelier to snatch our food when our eyes are closed or our backs are turned.

Why are dogs so good at reading our nonverbal cues—so much better, even, than chimpanzees and bonobos, to whom we’re more closely related? Dogs’ own ancestors, wolves, aren’t nearly so sensitive to human gestures and gazes. And a lifetime of exposure to humans doesn’t appear to be a prerequisite for these communicative superpowers: pointing turns out to be puppy’s play.

Researchers now believe that dogs’ ability likely evolved during domestication, probably due to selective breeding. There’s some disagreement about whether our own ancestors were selecting for communicative skills specifically (perhaps to create better hunters, retrievers, or herders), or whether this prowess was merely a by-product of selecting for something else, like tameness.

But though the sensitivity dogs exhibit is truly impressive, it nonetheless falls short of what humans—even very young ones—are capable of. Infants will communicate information to their adults when they know that it is of interest to the caregivers; dogs will only do so if they are the ones interested. Young children also pick up on information conveyed to a third party; dogs, not so much. And a brand new study finds that two-year-old humans are much better than dogs at gauging from a situation whether a communicative signal is unintentional (and thus ignorable).

Meanwhile, the cat—mere feet away from a tuna treat, and despite the best efforts of an insistent pointing hand—does nothing.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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