Communication’s Impact on Dog Domestication

by Courtney Sexton


Long before I began my journey to becoming a dogologist (aka evolutionary biology/animal behavior researcher), I was inspired by the ways my late dog Remy and I were able to communicate through a system of our own making, despite our tremendous differences. 

This very unique companionship made me wonder, how did dogs, who descended from top predators, and people get to the point of sharing homes (and ice cream cones)? You may be familiar with the story of dog domestication, but if you’re not, here’s a refresher.

A very brief history of dog domestication 

About 25,000 years ago, wolves who would eventually evolve into dogs began hanging out with our human ancestors. We don’t yet know exactly why (and we may never know). 

But some intrepid individuals from both species -- both by nature very social -- saw there could be value in cooperating. This was a tough time for any species to be alive, with rapidly changing climate (think, the last Ice Age), and limited resources.

With wolves (would-be-dogs) by our sides, we could hunt more quickly and successfully. To encourage them to stick around and continue helping instead of eating us, we would share the spoils with our canid friends, who welcomed the food security and warmth of fire. 

Eventually, because of dogs, we learned we could domesticate other animals (like horses and cows) and plants, and this paved the way for efficient trade between distant tribes and agrarian societies to emerge. 

Why are dogs dogs and not wolves?

Fast-forward several thousand years and there is now huge diversity among domesticated dog breeds. But before that, a lot of things changed. When humans “selected” for individual wolves who were more tame or approachable, they started to look different.

After a few generations, early dogs were distinct from their wolf ancestors in both behavior and physicality. They were approachable and friendly, and developed shorter noses, floppy ears, smaller teeth, curly tails, and spotted coats. Some researchers think that this is due to a down-regulation of adrenaline, but behaviors observed in modern breeds call this into question

Regardless of the mechanism, one thing is certain. Communication was a key part of the process. Finding ways to “tell” a potential predator that you could help them required some innovation on our ancestors’ parts, and, as we know, wolves and then dogs have adapted a remarkable understanding of our lingo and cues. And that has built trust. 

Domestication is different in the modern era 

We’ve carried the closeness forged by necessity (and perhaps genuine curiosity) with canine companions into a new phase of what it means for dogs to be domesticated, which for many is that they are now part of the family.

Dogs are now very important parts of our families, in different ways. And, as we all have likely experienced, open communication is crucial for family relationships to be fulfilling and successful. In fact, it is so important that linguists have even identified special familial language policies, which shape how family members use language, and for children, and learn to communicate. 

Bridging the human-canine communication gap

In the latest chapter of this evolving interspecies relationship, an innovative method has emerged that could foster further bond-building between humans and dogs: the use of communication buttons. These specialized tools enable dogs to express their needs, desires, and even thoughts more explicitly than ever before. By pressing buttons programmed with specific words or phrases, dogs can "speak" to their human companions, requesting things like food, play, or comfort, and even indicating when they are in pain or feeling anxious.

This method is not just a novelty but an important step forward in understanding canine cognition and emotional depth. Trainers and researchers are observing how dogs learn to use these buttons, revealing much about their problem-solving abilities and the complexity of their thought processes. This approach not only enriches the lives of individual dogs by giving them a voice but also provides researchers with invaluable data, offering deeper insights into the canine mind. 

As we continue to refine these communication techniques, the bond between humans and dogs may become even more profound, showcasing the ever-growing potential of true understanding across species lines.