Non-Verbal Communication Between Animals & Humans

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

How do animals communicate with each other nonverbally? Which animals understand humans' nonverbal communications best, and why? How can we 'get into' the heads of the animals we interact with, and improve our ability to communicate with them?

Communication: Beyond Speech

It is a universal truth: just because you aren't talking doesn't mean you aren't communicating! Rachel knows this well. Her new baby expresses his needs without talking, and her nephew has developmental challenges and can't speak, but still uses movement and sounds to communicate his feelings. And of course, people she sees every day convey meaning with hands, face, or posture.

Rachel is a zoologist, and she never ceases wondering at the way this truth applies to nonhumans too. Animals communicate among themselves as well as with humans.

In this lesson, we will concentrate on nonverbal communication among and between species, including the human species. Types of nonverbal communication include gestures, body language, and facial expression.

Animals Communicating With Each Other

Primates

Nonhuman primates such as monkeys and gorillas are stars in the business of nonverbal communication. They have a large repertoire of gestures, and it appears they can tell when the message they are trying to convey is not understood.

At the zoo where she works, Rachel has noted that if a gorilla does not get the response they are expecting, they may use a different gesture to try and clarify their intent, just as a human would.

Primates can also use gestural communication to head off unpleasant interactions. A dominant male ape might use a threatening body stance, a fierce stare, or an angry facial expression to warn off another tribe member who is irritating or challenging him.

Pets

Our pets, particularly dogs and cats, are great subjects for study in the area of nonverbal interaction. Just as she would with wild creatures at her job, Rachel observes her dogs Rufus and Candy communicating with each other.

Many of their expressions correspond with similar behaviors among their wild canine cousins like wolves. A direct stare can mean a challenge, bending forward with rump high and tail wagging is an invitation to play, and rolling over to show belly may be acknowledging a superior.

Showing belly communicates submission among dogs.
dog body language

When Rachel visits her sister, she notices how her cats use their mobile tails to gesture. A vertical position is playful, and horizontal is friendly, but a tail between the legs is fearful and defensive. Their facial expressions and ears are also vital links to communication. Flattened ears are recognized as signals of fear or aggression, for example.

How Animals Understand Our Nonverbal Communication

Animals can learn to understand some human words, but they intuitively pick up on our nonverbal cues. People often ask Rachel for advice about animal care. One thing she often tells them is not to argue in front of their pets.

This is not because of the content of the words, but because nonverbal accompaniments to a disagreement, like facial expressions and body stances, automatically are understood as fearful and threatening, and upset our animal roommates.

Pointing

One topic Rachel finds especially interesting in the area of nonverbal communication between humans and animals is pointing. Very young children instinctively know what their parents mean when they point to a toy or a box of cereal. However, a chimp whose mental age is supposedly much more mature doesn't get it. Why?

The answer seems to lie in part in how much interaction various animal species have had with humans over thousands of years. Primates haven't needed to learn what pointing means. Dogs, on the other hand, have and do. Yet despite their relatedness, the wolf can't comprehend pointing.

In fact, dogs have learned to point themselves, as well as they can without fingers. Look at a hunting dog using his nose and body to point out game to his human friend. Cats don't get pointing as well, possibly because they operate largely on their own and haven't worked as closely with humans over the centuries.

This hunting dog points toward the prey.
dog pointing

Connection with humans isn't the only reason for understanding and using a gesture as specific as pointing, though. Working with the elephants is one of Rachel's favorite duties at the zoo, because they seem to understand her so well.

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