Labrador with stick

The looking-back behavior of your dog is called the impossible or unsolvable task.

What does it mean if your dog just looks at you when you expect it to do something?

The unsolvable task is a pattern of behavior that has been widely studied as the “looking back behavior” in dogs.

It may sound like something unimportant but it is behavior that dog owners experience daily without realizing that their dog looking back at them “inquisitively” means the dog does not know what to do (doesn’t have the answer).

When your dog encounters a task that it doesn’t know how to do, it will look at you (the handler) for assistance in solving the “unsolvable” task.

The unsolvable task is a method used to measure communication between handler and dog.

How do dogs know when communication is intended for them?

Dogs focus on human eyes to decide whether the communication is directed at them.

Dogs do not understand gestures when the handler looks at someone else. It means that dogs need you to look at them when giving instructions. The calling of a dog’s name contributes to the dog focusing on what the owner is going to do next, even if the owner may be looking elsewhere, but research indicates that calling a dog’s name is much less effective than making eye contact.

Looking back over its shoulder is the behavior your Labrador uses as a
social problem-solving mechanism.

Dog communication

Dogs communicate in four ways.

  • Auditory (voice) such as barking and growling,
  • Visual (sight),
  • Tactile (touch),
  • Olfactory (smell)

There are two difficulties that arise from these methods of communication. They are that most dog owners are not aware that their dogs are communicating and that humans are not able to detect the communication signals.


Dog owners do not always know that their dogs have different barking patterns and do not react to those barks.

A dog owner who is alert to the communications their dogs send out knows when the dog is alerting them to the approach of people and even whether it is familiar or unfamiliar humans.

The way in which a dog looks at its owner may indicate that the dog is sensing something. It’s a “do you hear that?” or an unsolvable task look. This may change to growling, barking, tail wagging or moving towards a door.

Your dog may growl to get you to continue playing, warn other dogs or humans to keep their distance, greeting you or indicate that it is suffering pain.

There are many other auditory ways in which dogs communicate. It is for us humans to become alert to what the communication is trying to convey to us.

Girl with dog in water
What now?
Img: polina-tankilevitch/pexels


Dogs only see colors in a “washed-out” version of what humans see.

Dogs have 250 – 270 degrees of vision as compared to humans with 180°.

Dogs interpret body language in other dogs and in humans by sight and may convey their experience of a situation by looking away (diverting) or looking right into the eyes of the other dog (diversion or preparing for aggression)

Dogs using vision are mostly limited to using their vision to interpret the body language of humans and other canines.

The gazing factor in reacting to an unsolvable task is quite important as the dog will need to look at the handler to gather the information that will help it in solving the task.


Dogs have receptors at the base of every hair and can feel a touch that is not directly on the skin.

Dogs do not communicate with other dogs by touch but may communicate their need for attention or play by putting a paw on your arm or leg.


Communication by smell is the domain of the dog and us humans will probably never develop the ability to smell and interpret the communication that happens in this way.

Dogs have roughly forty times more smell-sensitive receptors than humans and their ability to smell changes in a substance has given rise to dogs used as disease detectors, the most recent being in detecting COVID-19.

Smelling and sniffing only lead to an unsolvable task if the dog is unable to draw conclusions on which it can act, such as in the case of a track going “dead”.

Will we ever be able to communicate with dogs?

This is probably not possible unless we can use technology in some way to transfer thoughts from one creature to another.

This inability is because animals are not conscious of what others are thinking.

Why dogs can’t speak human

Research indicates that dogs are unable to learn human speech because their brains cannot distinguish speech that differed by a single speech sound.

It seems we will have to learn to bark if we ever want to communicate with dogs in a “human” way!

How does the unsolvable task method differ from human-to-human communication?

Any parent of babies and toddlers will know how the child sometimes just looks at you when you give them instructions.

Parents often get frustrated with this seemingly uninterested child because it appears as if the child is challenging the parent. In fact, the child may be using the “unsolvable task” methodology to observe body language by waiting for gestures or facial expressions to know what is expected of them.

In that sense, the unsolvable task reaction differs very little from communication between humans and communication between dogs and humans.

The crawling baby that cannot get past the fence you put up in the door to the room and your Lab looking back over its shoulder when it can’t get out the door to go for a walk, is the manifestation of the same event, the “unsolvable task”.

More reading about communication by dogs