For anyone who’s ever been made to sit on their hands after gesticulating just a little too wildly, here’s some validation: At least dogs appreciate it.
Our canine pals, it seems, are pretty darn good at decoding our hand-talking. Past research has suggested that they’re better than chimpanzees, and nearly as good as human toddlers. And according to a study recently published in the journal Animal Cognition and highlighted by Discover, it’s not just that they’re skilled at interpreting what they see — when it comes to communicating with their humans, they prefer the visual over the verbal.
For the study, the authors told dog owners to give their canine pals four commands — sit, stay, lie down, and come — first with gestures only, then just with words. In the first part of the study, the researchers compared the dogs’ responses to the two styles, discovering that they did a better job following their owners’ gestured commands than the verbal ones. In the second part, they combined the two methods to confuse the dogs, telling the owners to gesture one command while speaking another. Faced with two conflicting orders, the dogs almost always ignored the words and did what the gestures told them to do.
Even in human-to-human communication, the power of gesture is often underrated — people talk with their hands not just to emphasize a point, but to clarify it. In one 2014 study, for example, participants watched a video of someone speaking and gesticulating at the same time; when the gestures didn’t match up with the words, they had a hard time understanding what the speaker was trying to say, misunderstanding the meanings of certain words that could have easily been figured out through context. Similarly, with dogs, the mismatch between gestures and words undercuts the spoken message — with one notable exception: When an owner said “come” and pantomimed “stay,” they came on over.
“Dogs’ responses appeared to be dependent also on the contextual situation,” the study authors wrote. “[Their] motivation to maintain proximity with an owner who was moving away could have led them to make the more ‘convenient’ choices between the two incongruent instructions.” As Discover noted, that may have stemmed from some protective instinct: “Maybe the animals were concerned about their mixed-up owners and thought they should stick close by.” Whatever the reason, it’s clear that dogs don’t just process one command and block out the other; they understand both and make their choice — and the winner, most of the time, is just one more example of the way you and your dog speak the same body language.