Dogs Are Excellent Communicators -- Even Via Skype

Many people want to be able to communicate with their loved ones -- including their pets -- when they're apart, and Skyping with an animal is not unheard of. Surprisingly, dogs are quite good at communicating via video chat -- but what canines are communicating isn't always clear. This video shows most of the dogs recognizing their owners through the screen, either by auditory or visual recognition; the dogs bark and howl and even cry, seemingly missing their owners.

click to play video

But, according to Jennifer Goldbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland, that might not be exactly the feeling the dogs are communicating. Rather, she says, these dogs are expressing agitation. Goldbeck, who co-authored a study on the practical and ethical issues involved with pet video chats, explained that these Skyping dogs might actually recognize their owners' voices, but that might not be the only noise to which they're responding.

"[These] dogs are responding to sound... but just sounds in general," Goldbeck said. "In this video, there are lots of howling sounds and other noises that are likely to get a dog to react. In a few cases, it seems like the dog may really be recognizing the owner's voice." But, as Goldbeck and her colleague found in their study, this might actually be cause for a dog's discontent. "It's unclear if [voice recognition] upsets the dogs -- because they can't smell us, and that is their main sensory recognition -- or if it is entertaining for them. My intuition is to lean toward agitation rather than adorableness."

One study found that canines look at strange and familiar faces on a screen differently, which scientists measured by tracking several dogs' eye movements; this suggests that the way dogs scan our faces provides important information that allows them to know if we are familiar or not. And plenty of additional research suggests that dogs do, to some extent, rely on their ability to see their owners' faces to determine familiarity, meaning they could potentially pick up on certain visual facial cues shown on webcam.

Goldbeck cautioned that regardless of whether or not your dog recognizes your face on the screen, it's likely he or she will confused by a disembodied voice -- even if it seems, to a human, to be attached to someone who should be familiar. But that's not to say you can't still Skype with your pet when you're apart. As Goldbeck explains in her study, there are ways to be "together" from afar that won't confuse your dog: "The ‘safest' designs, in terms of not causing distress to the pet, may simply be those that allow pet owners to monitor their pet from afar using a video link, where the owner sees the pet, but not vice-versa."