Dogs, masters of indexical semiotics


When we study animal communication we usually analyze the languages ​​that animals such as dolphins, bees or dogs use to communicate with each other. The greatest difficulty in these analyzes is that, as a different species that we are, it is difficult for us to access the communication thresholds that each animal species has, and for this reason we do not recognize their languages ​​and their signs well.

In the communication of dogs, animals that have undergone a process of co-evolution with humans, many assemblages and specific forms of communication have been created, which make the man-dog binomial a special communicative team. This allows us to better understand and appreciate the richness and complexity of their language.

Dogs, as Brian Haare and Vanessa Woods recently explained in their book The Genius of Dogs ( Genios. Dogs are more intelligent than we think , in its Spanish translation), are particularly skilled animals, not simply in intelligence in general, but in its communicative and cooperative adaptation with human beings. In the assemblage, the coexistence between species transformed the predatory wolf into the sheepdog, and the enemy human into a caretaker and companion.

Humans and dogs are a team with a communicative genius of their own. Dogs are animals that understand our signals especially well. We have formed a team with them, in which one species spreads and becomes the tool of the other, respectively. Our senses and capacities have been in contact and cooperation.

Index signs

We have all seen how a shepherd gives signals to his dog, or how dogs know how to indicate to their masters if they want or need something. For this communication, dogs and humans use a special type of signs, which in Semiotics are called index signs: arrows, footprints, signs, residues, traces, all those elements that, having been in contact with an object, represent it by association.

Index signs are very important in communication. Unlike icon signs –which are signs that resemble what they represent, as is the case with photographic images or figurative portraits–, indexes are signs that often act almost in secret, and frequently involve their user physically.

For example, when a dog wants to signal to us that he wants something, he stares at it for hours before us. His whole body becomes an indexical “arrow” that leads us to the object he wants to point to. This type of signal, as dog owners know, is very effective.

The incidental mind

Index signs have their particular world within the human mind and culture. It is said that there is a very deep “circumstantial mind”, the one that extracts information from mere chance associations, from the appearances or disappearances of things, the one that follows, like sniffing detectives, the traces of events, studying the tracks, eliminating factors or collecting symptoms until you find the key to things.

Semiotics studies index signs because they are associated with the intuitive mind, and also with very effective senses of our perceptual system, such as smell, taste or touch. Science or medicine also use indicial signs in depth.

Dogs are masters of indexical semiotics. They are experts in tracking tracks and footprints. They use smell, the seat of many indicial processes – smells, the emanations of objects, are signs that indicate the presence, state, and proximity or distance of things and subjects – and hearing, to obtain information of great subtlety.

Geolocators and neurotics

They themselves signalize by means of residues – marking with urine, with objects, with their body – messages in territories. They follow human directions, signals and directions with enormous skill. Contact is fundamental for them: that is why they do not lose sight of our attention zone – they never place an object that they want the human to see behind it – and they tend to constantly seek friction and physical support.

This makes them very pleasant to humans, since our semiotics of the species, more iconic and symbolic, sometimes takes us away from the indexical, which nevertheless is a deep root to find and preserve significance in our lives. Dogs extend our semiotic system, in a very rich way.

This signic ability makes dogs fabulous geolocators of people or lost objects, and admirable defenders of places or groups, because they detect symptomatic changes in situations and contexts, and quickly associate uncommon factors or residues.

This same capacity makes them, at times, particularly neurotic or apprehensive about signs, indications or residues: to become excessively frightened of alarms by chance associations, to become obsessed with elements or subjects, or to irrationally lick a wound until infecting it, or to insist in an exaggerated way on the demarcation of territories.

Humans and indexes

When it comes to linking meaning to things, index communication is key: that is why we humans also use it when we want to express deep emotions: we hug, we give objects, we materialize our sensations and emotions through indexes such as gifts, talismans, decoration or rituals , adding index wealth to the relationships we maintain.

The ability of dogs to come into contact with the human soul, avoiding illusions or mental distortions, is unique. The symbiosis between these two species, the canine and the human, is a great evolutionary advance. Create a universe of shared meaning that roots the consciousness of both in a larger life.

Humans have embraced and accepted the indexical communication of dogs, becoming their extensions, when we take care of them, we feed them and we reach them everything that they as a species could not have. However, in human-dog interaction, they get us something even better. The ability to indicate the love, warmth, and closeness that a dog has, cannot be achieved by humans, because it is associated with their semiotic indexical competence: they know better how to say love through their body, their gaze, their presence. Where our thresholds of perception do not reach, they can communicate something new to us.

Communication is precisely that simple ability to build bridges, to find ways to understand what is different and dissimilar and to create with it a language, a common poetry. The contribution of dogs to the meaning of that poetry of human life weighs every day, as does the body of the dog that we have by our side in our lives.

Author Bio: Eva Aladro Vico is Professor of Information Theory at Complutense University of Madrid