Do dogs appease each other—or us? Veterinary research focuses on watching and labeling canine interactions

Do dogs appease each other—or us? Veterinary research focuses on watching and labeling canine interactions

Careful observation can provide clues about how a dog may react in specific situations.
May 01, 2014

Interactions between dogs and people as well as dogs and other dogs have become an area of intense research focus in recent years. This is true partly because people like to watch their own dogs and partly because, given their evolutionary (and possible co-evolutionary) history with us, dogs' brains and neurodevelopment patterns may be excellent models for humans.

By studying the development of canine interactive sequences, we can learn about the ontogeny of signaling, how we make decisions, and which parts and functions in the brain are involved in these aspects of cognition. As emerging research is suggesting, there is no better model for human cognition than the domestic dog.

What exactly are social signals?

Inherent in all studies of communication is this tenet: The currency of social interaction is information, and the more accurate the information, the better. Accurate information facilitates risk assessment, and risk assessment affects how we decide to spend our time and other currencies.

The tool that provides access to this desired information is the social signal, which can be visual, tactile, auditory or olfactory. Cues and signals differ—cues provide information (for example, the sun rose) but exist for reasons other than providing that information. Signals are usually defined as actions or structures that benefit an individual by altering the behavior of others around that individual as a result of the information provided.1 Social signals open and close discussions, specify the types of interactions (e.g. play or fight), reveal how well participants know each other and generally determine the quality of the interaction.

Sending and receiving signals

Individuals sending signals do so because it benefits them. The choice and timing of the signal are determined by context: patterns of signals are not random, and using them in an inappropriate circumstance won't help and may hurt the signaler. This is one way we recognize behavioral pathology—the signal is given in a context where it is not needed or in an intensity or frequency that does not match the ongoing social situation.

Those receiving the signal, the receivers, alter their behaviors when the signal carries information indicating that there is value to them in behavioral change—for example, dog No. 1 growls upon dog No. 2's approach; dog No. 2 withdraws rather than be bitten. Reliability of a signal can be gauged by rarity, repeated pattern and redundancy. Even within one signaling system—let's say visual signaling—congruence of the signals given by the tail, ears, eyes, mouth and overall posture all lead to enhanced reliability. If a vocal signal (e.g. a whine) reinforces an understanding of the signaler's state, such redundancy has made the message of the signal clear.

Who's appeasing whom?

It has become increasingly common among people who own dogs to talk about their dog "appeasing" them. Descriptions of dog to dog behavior are frequently couched in terms of who "appeased" whom. Unfortunately, what we've given up in behavioral information may have far more value than what's provided by the "appeasement" label. So how accurate is such labeling, and does it have a role in how we talk about dogs?

Appeasement signals have been said to advertise peaceful intentions and are thought to be present only when such information is relevant—for example, in situations when fighting may establish, even temporarily, a hierarchy, pecking order or other social rule that avoids injury or death.2