Empathy and Nonverbal Skills in Dogs


My dog, Bonnie, has some remarkable nonverbal skills, but she is missing one element thought to be essential to understanding nonverbal messages. Bonnie is great at sending nonverbal messages. She is a creature of habit, so my wife and I generally understand what she is trying to say. Bonnie doesn’t need words to say she is hungry, tired, afraid, angry, excited, hurt, loving, or bored. She may bark or whine, but she often gets her messages across in more subtle ways.

I believe dogs can be deceptive. They can intentionally send false messages. Umberto Eco argues that the ability to lie is a necessary condition for communicating. My previous dog, Bailey, would try to fool us on occasion. If true, dogs are aware of the nonverbal messages they are sending to us. But generally, Bonnie and her fellow canines have simple needs, and they express them in a truthful and consistent manner unconsciously. They learn to use the symbolic means of communication that we teach them. We trained Bailey, for example, to come in when she barked at the neighbors. After a while, she trained us to come let her in when she barked.

Dogs have a natural body language. Reading books on the topic helped me to decode some of Bonnie’s messages. Instead of studying rats nowadays, psychologists write books on dogs. They have lived with humans for generations now. The remarkable thing about Bonnie’s nonverbal skills is that she can read many of my nonverbal messages. Her ability to read some of my emotional states without repetition or reward is impressive. If I act sad around her, she gets a little agitated and soon comes to me and licks my face. This is one reason dogs are such great service animals. Bonnie interprets my stare, responds to my use of different tones of voice, becomes more stimulated when I am happy, and acts jealous when my wife and I get close. Bonnie interprets basic human emotions and responds appropriately.

So, what’s the one element of nonverbal communication that seems to be missing in dogs? While Bonnie appears to have some empathy and a greater ability to respond appropriately to my bad moments than some humans I know, she has difficulty seeing things from my perspective. Piaget argued that toddlers are unable to take on another person’s perspective. They first have to learn that objects do not disappear when they are out of sight. That was true for Bonnie as well. She did not search for toys that rolled out of her view she was a young puppy. But, she eventually learned to search for what left her field of vision. The objects became permanent, i.e., not dependent on her perception of them. But, she never learned how to see things from my perspective. She can’t even figure out how to walk back around a pole when the leash gets wrapped around it while we are on a walk (which many dogs can do). She can’t anticipate what she needs to do to accomplish one of her goals if it involves understanding how I see things. She can’t maneuver to a position that will help me to help her. I’ve tested her and tried to help her understand my point of view, but either I’m not smart enough testing her or her ability to take on another frame of reference is limited.

Is the ability to see things from another person’s perspective required to be empathic? Some say we need to be able to imagine that we are walking in someone else’s shoes. Maybe Bonnie merely has some sympathy for me when I appear sad, not empathy. She would certainly quickly forget all about me if she heard the cheese drawer open in the fridge. But elephant research shows the elephants have strong emotions and may be able to figure out how to help a fellow elephant by seeing things from the elephant in trouble’s perspective.

Some people, like Temple Grandin, who is autistic, can’t read people’s emotions at all. They have to interpret the various physical changes in our facial expressions piecemeal. Nevertheless, Temple has a great deal of empathy for animals; she is famous for designing a more humane way of treating cows about to be butchered.

This all points out what a remarkable skill we animals have to be able to read emotions almost instantaneously. Most of the time, we do this naturally, with little conscious thought. I think the basic skill of reading some kinds of nonverbal messages is largely inborn, but culture plays a big role, and the skill is refined as we age.

Without our nonverbal skills, life would be quite different. We’d be far less happy. So unhappy, even our pets would struggle to cheer us up.

%d bloggers like this: