Exploring Ontogenetic Ritualization in Dog-Human Communication


The domestication of dogs has led to the development of unique communicative behaviors that facilitate interaction between dogs and humans. This short article explores the concept of ontogenetic ritualization and its role in shaping dog-human communicative signals. We discuss key examples of ritualized behaviors in dogs, such as gaze alternation, barking, play bow, tail wagging, and paw lifting, and the evolutionary processes that have shaped these behaviors into specialized communication tools. Our analysis highlights the significance of ontogenetic ritualization in fostering strong bonds and cooperation between dogs and humans.

The Evolution of Expressive Behaviors

The relationship between dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and humans (Homo sapiens) dates back thousands of years, with evidence suggesting that the domestication of dogs occurred around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago (Skoglund et al., 2015). Over this extensive period, dogs have evolved to develop unique communicative behaviors that facilitate interaction with their human counterparts. One key concept in understanding the development of these behaviors is ontogenetic ritualization, a process by which functional actions become ritualized and specialized as communicative signals (Tomasello & Zuberbühler, 2002). In this paper, we examine the role of ontogenetic ritualization in shaping dog-human communicative signals and discuss examples of ritualized behaviors in dogs.

Gaze Alternation

Gaze alternation is a crucial communicative signal in dog-human interaction, whereby a dog looks back and forth between a human and an object of interest (Miklósi et al., 2003). This behavior is thought to have evolved from the basic act of following the gaze of another individual, an important skill for social animals. Gaze alternation has become ritualized in dogs to convey their intent, desire, or need for assistance (Miklósi et al., 2003).


Barking, a form of vocalization in dogs, has undergone ontogenetic ritualization to become a multifaceted communication tool. Originally used to alert pack members of potential threats or prey, barking has evolved to express various emotions or desires such as fear, playfulness, or hunger (Yin, 2002). Different types of barks may be used to convey specific messages to humans, highlighting the complexity and versatility of this communicative signal (Pongrácz et al., 2005).

Play Bow

The play bow is a posture adopted by dogs when they want to initiate play with another dog or human (Bekoff, 1977). This behavior is thought to have originated from a submissive posture, which has been ritualized to convey a playful intent (Bekoff, 1977). In a play bow, the dog lowers its front legs and keeps its rear end raised, often wagging its tail to emphasize its friendly intentions.

Tail Wagging

Tail wagging is a classic example of ontogenetic ritualization in dog-human communication. Initially, tail wagging likely served as a way to disperse scents from the anal glands or as a visual signal for other dogs (Bradshaw & Nott, 1995). However, it has evolved into a communicative gesture that indicates a range of emotions such as happiness, excitement, or even anxiety, depending on the speed and direction of the wagging (Quaranta et al., 2007).

Paw Lifting

Paw lifting is another dog behavior that has undergone ontogenetic ritualization. While it may have initially served as a way for dogs to indicate submission, it has since evolved to convey a range of meanings such as requesting attention or indicating a desire for food or affection from humans (Beerda et al., 1998).


The process of ontogenetic ritualization has played a pivotal role in the development of dog-human communicative signals. These specialized behaviors have allowed dogs to adapt their natural actions to better communicate with humans, fostering strong bonds and facilitating cooperation between the two species. The ability of dogs to understand and respond to human cues, such as gaze direction and pointing gestures, demonstrates their unique capacity for interspecies communication (Hare et al., 2002). This capacity has been shaped by both genetic and environmental factors, with dogs’ socialization experiences playing a crucial role in the development of these communicative behaviors (Gácsi et al., 2009).

Moreover, these ritualized behaviors may also have implications for the welfare of dogs. Understanding the nuances of dog communication can help pet owners and professionals better interpret dogs’ emotional states and needs, leading to more effective training and care strategies (Mariti et al., 2012). For instance, recognizing the different types of barks or the meaning behind a specific tail wag can provide insights into a dog’s emotional state, allowing caregivers to respond appropriately.


In conclusion, ontogenetic ritualization has played a significant role in shaping the communicative behaviors of dogs, enabling them to effectively interact with humans. The examination of behaviors such as gaze alternation, barking, play bow, tail wagging, and paw lifting illustrates the evolution of these actions from functional origins to specialized communicative signals. A deeper understanding of these ritualized behaviors can strengthen the bond between dogs and humans and improve the welfare of dogs by enabling more accurate interpretation of their emotional states and needs.


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Tony Bierman, "Exploring Ontogenetic Ritualization in Dog-Human Communication," OBTESA, Accessed June 18, 2024, http://esbt.us/eq.