Do dogs really understand us? Hypotheses and studies
on dog-human communication

Jozsef Topal and Adam Miklosi
Lorand Eotvos University, Hungary

In recent years, a series of arguments led to the hypothesis that man and dog has common evolutionary pre-history and, consequently, dogs have evolved some special behavioral skills in the form of adaptation to living in an environment full of conscious beings. Many argue that man and dog not only share common environment on an evolutionary scale, but it might be expected that convergent evolutionary processes would have led to the emergence of similar traits -behavior analogies- in these species. Besides studying behavior homologies between humans and non-human apes, as a result of divergent processes in evolution, this hypothesis leads to an other comparative approach: studying convergent processes in behavior evolution.
One area where human contact has certainly enhanced the mental capacity of dogs is communication. Recently dogs have been reported, in many independent studies, to be exceptionally good in responding to human pointing gestures (e.g. Miklosi et al., 1998; Hare et al., 1999). Based on these results, we show further experimental evidence for the well-developed communicative skills in dogs. Our results suggest that dogs are not only capable of intentional, functionally referential communication with their owners (Miklosi et al. 2000),, but they can follow human gaze direction and -like children- they are able to recognize the communicative nature of certain human gestures (Soproni et al., 2001). Recently we have found that dogs are able to rely on relatively novel gestural forms of the human communicative pointing gesture in a food choice task (Soproni et al., 2002) and they are also sensitive to their owner's attentional state while giving verbal signals (Topal et al., 2001)
We think that dogs' sophisticated communication system may reflect evolutionary pre-adaptation to the human environment which has enabled them to develop complex forms of information transfer with humans.

These works has been supported by OTKA (T029705) and by a grant from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (F226/98).

Hare, B. & Tomasello, M. 1999: Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use human and conspecific social cues to locate hidden food. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 113, 173-177
Miklosi A., Polgardi, R., Topal, J., & Csanyi V. 1998: Use of experimenter-given cues in dogs. Animal Cognition, 1, 113-121
Miklosi A., Polgardi, R., Topal, J., & Csanyi V. 2000: Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: An experimental analysis of 'showing' behaviour in the dog. Animal Cognition, 3, 159-166
Soproni, K., Miklosi, A., Topal J, & Csanyi V. 2001: Comprehension of human communicative signs in pet dogs. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115, 122-126
Soproni, K., Miklosi, A., Topal J, & Csanyi V. 2002. Dogs' responsiveness to human pointing gestures. . Journal of Comparative Psychology 116, (in press)
Topal, J., Viranyi, Zs., Miklosi, A., Gacsi, M. & Csanyi, V. 2001. The role of the owner's attentional state on their dog's reaction to verbal instructions. Advances in Ethology (Supplements to Ethology), 36, p.276.

TOPAL, Jozsef
Comparative Ethology Research Group,
Lorand Eotvos University
Pazmany P. setany 1/c, Budapest, H-1117, Hungary,