The Many Ways Dogs Ask for Help


At Petminded, we like to nerd out about dog science and research. Our goal is to interpret the research so it can be applied to better understanding and caring for our dogs. In this post, we're looking at two studies and to understand how our dogs ask for our help and one way we can train them to do so.

Who turns to the human? Companion pigs’ and dogs’ behaviour in the unsolvable task paradigm reviews a study comparing how often domesticated pigs and dogs seek help from humans when solving a problem. We think the results provide some additional insight into our dogs and how they communicate with us!

Effect of reinforcement, reinforcer omission and extinction on a communicative response in domestic dogs studied "the effect of learning processes upon the gaze towards the human's face as a communicative response." This one tells us that we can use training to teach our dogs to look at us, a helpful tool for communicating what they want.

Dogs versus Pigs: Which animal asks for human help more?

This is an interesting comparison for two big reasons - (1) both were subject to domestication and (2) all animals in this study were kept and raised as pets from a very young age. Therefore, humans should play a role in both their lives and the study sets out to discover similarities and differences in how this plays out.

The researchers of this study used an unsolvable task to answer the question. By presenting the subjects with an unretrievable treat, researchers can analyze things like:

- How long does it take the animal to look to a human for help?

- How much time do they spend trying to retrieve it on their own?

- How often do they switch their attention between the object and the human?

So, what did they find? During the unsolvable phase (when animals could not retrieve treats),

  • Dogs spent more time orienting to humans than pigs.
  • Dogs looked towards humans sooner than pigs.
  • Dogs alternated gaze between humans and apparatus more than pigs.
  • Pigs spent more time interacting with the apparatus than dogs.

So what? How we can apply this to the dogs in our care

The results support that dogs may be predisposed to communicate with humans in a way that is unique to them. This is true even among other domesticated species raised in a similar manner! Specifically, they look to us, their human companions, when they need help. Since our dogs can't use human words to ask for what they need, we are left to interpret their vocalizations, body language and looks. We can reinforce the ways they ask for help by meeting their needs: rescuing the ball from under the couch, letting them out, feeding them or filling the water bowl, playing tug... again.

What and How Our Petminded Dogs Ask for Help

We asked our Petminded Community how their dogs communicate what they want, and here's what they told us!

"If Lucy wants something or needs help, she stares through your soul." - Shelly

"Bozo will vocalize, herd me, paw me, and stare at me any time he wants something.  If I am downstairs and he thinks I have been gone to long he "herumphs" at me to come back upstairs.  If he needs help, he will heard me to the location, paw at the object and then look at me. He communicates all the time!" - Alanna

"Windy learned that using her paw gets a response. When she's ready to come back inside after a potty trip, she paws our noisy screen door. When she wants her reinforcement, she paws me multiple times. When she wants water and her bowl is empty, she paws it hard enough that it makes a sound." -Stephanie

Can We Teach Our Dog to Give Us Puppy Eyes?

We all love those puppy dog eyes. The ones that they give you when they want something (you know the one.) It’s also those same puppy dog eyes that scientists believe make us want to give them everything they want. But not all dogs readily give humans that look even though it can be a very convenient signal to us that our dogs need something. So can you teach your dog this specific asking for help behavior?

According to Bentosela et al., (2020), yes you can! In this study, a human stood near a bowl of treats that was visible but unreachable to the dog. To get a treat, the dog simply had to look at the human. Researchers investigated how reinforcement (dogs get a treat every time they look at the human) and omission/extinction (dogs are no longer rewarded for looking at the human) can influence this looking behavior. Here’s what they learned:

  • Dogs learned when it was beneficial to them (they got the treat) but, also learned when it was longer beneficial to them.
  • This look behavior is flexible - it can change in as little as three short 2-minute sessions.
  • Dogs who participate in training activities that specifically require them to look at their human, look at their owners more even outside of that activity.

So, does your dog need to look at you? Nope! But is it helpful? Yup! Can you teach them to look at you? Sure! Just follow some simple guidelines:

  1. Make sure the look is meaningful (e.g. look at me, get a treat!)
  2. Reinforce consistently (e.g. every look gets a treat.)
  3. Mix up the context (e.g. reinforce the looking in different places and with different distractors.)

How It Worked for One of Our Members

"I taught Raina and Mala to look at me more on walks by pretty much the method described (in the Bentosela study). Since the environment on a walk is fairly high in distractions, to start out I would make a kissy sound or tug lightly on the leash to get their attention, then mark with “yes” or a click when they looked at me. If they happened to look at me without prompting, same thing, mark and reward. Raina got it a lot quicker, but now Mala is also doing pretty well at checking in with me during walks." - Amanda

Pay attention to all the ways your dog asks you for help. They are pretty adept at communicating with us! And, if they aren't communication important needs like needing to use the potty, there may be some training opportunities!

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