Dogs are skilled at using both visual and auditory cues when asked to perform various tasks, but to what extent can dogs draw conclusions regarding the motive behind human gestures? This study investigated canine food-seeking behavior in two trials in which dogs were tasked with finding food hidden in a 2-compartment box. The first trial used 2 communicative contexts: In the “cooperative” context, the experimenter pointed helpfully to the box containing food and spoke in a high-pitched cooperative tone of voice while looking alternately at the dog and the food. In the “competitive” context, the experimenter forbade the dog to approach the food by holding out an arm in a “stop” gesture, using a forbidding tone of voice while alternating gazes from dog to food. Dogs were very successful when a positive voice and helpful visual cue were used but chose randomly in the competitive context. Dogs also hesitated longer in the prohibitive setting versus the cooperative setting.

In the second trial, the investigators sought to find whether voice or gesture was more likely to influence the dogs’ behavior. Dogs were again tasked with finding food in a 2-compartment box, this time using 3 different gestural cues within each context: pointing, stop, and approach (experimenter stood by boxes and gave positive vocal cues while positioned in front of food and alternating gaze from food to dog). Dogs were again most successful in the cooperative context and chose randomly in the competitive context. The investigators conclude that voice and context, more than gesture, were most important. The random choices and hesitancy in the competitive context suggested that the dogs were confused.

Commentary: Dog training has evolved from being punishment oriented to the now-preferred method of positive reinforcement. In a recently updated position statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB, avsabonline.org), punishment is not recommended as first-line treatment for behavior problems. In the study reported here, investigators found that training using a high-pitched, welcoming voice reinforced desired behavior compared with using a low-pitched/prohibitive voice and that hand gestures played a less important role, thereby supporting the AVSAB’s stand. My take-home message to clients is that dogs learn more easily when they are told what to do and positively reinforced for doing it, rather than being told what not to do and being punished for doing it.—Sandra Sawchuk, DVM, MS

Understanding of human communicative motives in domestic dogs. Pettersson H, Kaminski J, Herrmann E, Tomasello M. APPL ANIM BEHAV SCI 133:235-245, 2011.