"Do Dogs Intentionally Use Body Language to Communicate?"

If dogs communicate intentionally, why can’t they hide their feelings?

Originally published in slightly different form on July 9, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Unconscious Form of Communication?

There are three ways in which dogs are said to communicate with other dogs, as well as with human beings; through their body language, vocalizations, and direct eye contact. In this article we’ll look at body language as a form of communication and try to determine whether dogs use their body language deliberately, with the intent to communicate their thoughts or feeling states to others, or if it’s a purely unconscious form of communication.

First I think we need to differentiate—as Daniel C. Dennett does in his book Consciousness Explained—between the following two basic types or forms of communication; 1) intentionally reporting information and 2) unconsciously expressing an emotion. “There are many ways of expressing a mental [or emotional] state,” Dennett writes, “but only one way of reporting one, and that is by uttering a speech act (oral or written or otherwise signed).” (p 306) The first requires the use of written or spoken language, the second doesn’t.

Some would argue that a pup who paws at his dinner bowl seems to be telling his owner that he’s hungry. Likewise, a dog who drops his leash into your lap seems to be reporting his need for a walk. But it seems to me that there’s a substantive difference between a dog who’s trying to get his owner to understand something and a dog who’s trying to get his owner to do something.

Not What the Sounds Mean But What They Accomplish

Eugene Morton of the National Zoo has done an extensive study of the sounds made by numerous species of animals. He says that to really understand these sounds, it’s best not to try to understand what they mean, but what they accomplish. If we translate that to canine body language we can see that it’s not about what the postures and facial expressions mean to the other dog (or human), it’s about what they get the other dog (or human) to do: to back off, come closer, play a game, not play so rough, etc.

It’s important to remember that the term body language wasn’t on anyone’s radar before 1979 when psychologist Joseph Braysich wrote, Body Language: a Handbook. Then, in 1981, Australian motivational speaker Allan Pease wrote a bestseller, Body Language: How to Read Others’ Thoughts by Their Gestures. Pease made a pretty good living teaching people how to be aware of what their body language was telling others. This suggests that body language—even in humans—usually manifests without the slightest bit of conscious intent.

So what is intent, exactly?

Levels of Intent

Dennett has defined it in three basic levels (which I’ve paraphrased below), based on the idea that most animals have the capacity to form internal representations of salient aspects of their environments, and that their behaviors are guided by those representations. (For instance, dogs have internal, mental maps of their environment, which can be clearly seen in how they navigate differently through familiar and unfamiliar environments.)

1st Order Intent: Rex is aware of his own internal representations.

2nd Order Intent: Rex is aware that Daisy has internal representations similar to his.

3rd Order Intent: Rex believes that he can communicate something about his internal states to Daisy and that she will understand what his internal states are.

Third order is obviously more sophisticated (and therefore more recently evolved) than first-order intent (which in turn is more sophisticated than zero-order or non-intent).

A Dog’s Lips Curl Back Involuntarily

Going back to canine body language, when we say that a dog “bares his teeth” to communicate aggression (his internal state) and to warn others to stay away, we’re imputing 3rd level intent onto the dog. As discussed in an earlier article I wrote here, The Myth of Aggressive Intent,” I suggested that the dog is probably not intentionally communicating, nor warning another being, or even “baring his teeth.” When a dog has a strong urge to bite, the lips curl back involuntarily to get them out of the way so he won’t injure his own flesh if he has to actually bite something or someone.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis, too. My dog Freddie used to bare his teeth whenever he took a bone from me. Was he communicating his aggressive intent to the bone? Another dog I know, a poodle named Dougie, always curls his lips when you give him a treat. Still another dog, Augie Doggie, unfortunately didn’t have this reflex and was constantly injuring himself by biting his own lips instead of toys, sticks, etc. Also dogs will sometimes “bare their teeth” even when an “intended” victim has its back turned. Plus many dogs routinely “bare their teeth” during play! Are they communicating aggressive intent? If so then why do the other dogs continue to play with them?

So I think if we stop and think about this from the dog’s point of view, with a clear understanding of their cognitive abilities—meaning they don’t even have first level intent—we would see that body language is probably not an intentional form of communication for dogs.

Still, even with all that in mind, there’s no doubt that body language is a valuable tool for learning to recognize what a dog is feeling at any given moment. To me the only mistake comes in thinking that the dog has the conscious intent to communicate those feelings to others.

Finally, it seems to me that if dogs were consciously aware of what they were communicating, it would be logical to suppose that there might be times that a dog would control his body language so as not to give away information that might get him in trouble. For instance, I always felt that if my dog Freddie could keep from wagging his tail in situations where it would have been advantageous for him to hide his feelings, he would have done it. But he didn’t.

“Why does a dog wag his tail?” goes the old saying. “Because if the tail were smarter it would wag the dog.”

In the case of canine body language, perhaps the tail really is smarter than the dog.


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