Words We Say to Dogs (and Other Things Scientists Learned Watching People Play with Pets)

By Elizabeth Preston | April 6, 2016 11:03 am


“Who wants to generate some DATA??” are probably not words you’ve ever said while taking your dog’s leash and tennis ball from the closet. But thanks to videos of people playing with their dogs, scientists now know what words you are likely to use. They also discovered how women’s tussling and tug-of-war are different from men’s—and what the professionals do better.

The scientists are Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht of Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab. They asked members of the public to send them videos of playtime with their dogs. The researchers ended up with 187 videos from dog owners in 19 different countries. The humans in the videos ranged from 8 to 75 years old.

Analyzing the videos, Horowitz and Hecht saw all the classic types of dog play: roughhousing, chasing, fetch, tug-of-war. They also saw some more innovative techniques, like using a laser pointer.

The researchers transcribed everything humans said on these videos. Then they built a list of the 35 most-used words by people playing with dogs:

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.36.29 AM

They also looked for differences in how people in the videos interacted with their pets. They saw that women were more likely to touch the animals while they played with them. Half of the male dog owners were totally hands-off during play, but this was true of only one-third of female dog owners.

Many of the citizen scientists who opted to send in videos also said that they worked with dogs professionally. These people—trainers, vets, groomers, breeders, dog walkers and so on—accounted for 48 of the 187 videos. When Hecht and Horowitz looked for differences between the professionals and the non-professionals, they found that pros stayed closer to their pets while playing. These owners spent more time in close proximity to their dogs, and more time face-to-face.

The science of people playing with their pets could have practical applications—and not just for the manufacturers of Frisbees and laser pointers. As more dogs are trained to become specialized helpers and companions to humans, a better understanding of how canines and their owners interact would be useful.

Aside from vocabulary and physical habits, the researchers in this study were also interested in mood. They pored over the videos to analyze the apparent attitude, or “affect,” of both humans and dogs. They found that owners who seemed to be having an especially good time touched their dogs more, stayed closer, and moved around more while they played.

On the other hand, the researchers didn’t get much information out of the dogs themselves. That’s because dog moods didn’t really vary, they explain: “Dog affect was overwhelmingly positive.”


Images: top, Ricardo Villela (via Flickr); middle, Horowitz & Hecht; bottom, jamie duke (via Flickr)

Horowitz A, & Hecht J (2016). Examining dog-human play: the characteristics, affect, and vocalizations of a unique interspecific interaction. Animal cognition PMID: 27003698

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Perhaps spoken modulation rather that content itself is operative. One may grasp deeper applicabilities with similarly constrained Seussian vocabularies. (Youtuve v=8INIH0JfNA8. Perhaps the difference was to Ambassador Stevens and America.)


  • OWilson

    Interesting stuff, as long as we remember not to generalize.

    In much of the larger world dogs have different values. Unless they can serve some useful practical purpose, they are abandoned to scavenge.

    They may be kept for protection, even food, but you don’t see the level of pure play interaction that we think of on a sunny day in our local city park.

    The clue of course is recruiting “videos of playtime with their dogs” for the study.

  • Astrid Naomi

    ‘face-too-face’ – face-to-face. :)


    What happened to “belly rubs”..??

    • Charlene H

      That’s not play. That is the equivalent of cuddling.

  • Jake

    This was a very cool article in my opinion. If you were collecting the data of all these videos, you got to experience different cultures and how dogs act different in these cultures. You get to understand why dogs react the way they do while playing with them or even sitting down. They talked about the dogs mood and how they didn’t collect any data from them because they all react the same way. Wouldn’t it be easier to tell if a dog is happier or just plain annoyed? I feel like different breeds react different from one to another.

    • Charlene H

      They really don’t. Any differences are largely due to physiology – it’s difficult to tell the set of the tail when there simply isn’t one, for example.

      Otherwise, dog language is dog language. A great Dane from Holland has no problem understanding a chihuahua from Mexico telling him to back away slowly!



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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