One of the reasons dogs are the man’s best friend appears to be that dogs are a lot like humans. Several new studies have confirmed that if it seems like your dog is in tune with you, it might mean they can watch and understand human interactions.
Humans love to people-watch. Although we often do it because we find human interaction interesting. But we also people-watch because it helps us understand social cues and how to interact with each other. A study published in August in the journal Animal Behavior says that dogs also people-watch. The study involved a test of 54 dogs that sat by and watched while their owners had trouble removing a roll of tape from its container.
The dogs were divided into three groups: helper, non-helper, and control. The helper group involved seeing the owner ask for help from another person, who then held the container. In the non-helper group, the person turned away without helping. In the control group, the other person turned her back before being asked for help by the owner. A neutral third person was in the room for all experiments.
In one round, the neutral person and the helper/non-helper offered the dog some treats. The dogs that were in the non-helper group, dogs ignored the non-helper and favored the neutral person. In the helper group, the dogs showed no favoritism when it came to treats. Scientists have done similar studies in infants and capuchin monkeys. The conclusion may be that dogs deliberately shun people who are mean to their owners.
Follow That Gaze
Researchers once believed dogs only followed human gazes only when food or toys were involved. But the results of a new study suggests dogs can and do follow human gazes into blank space. There are a few caveats, however. The research was published in August in the journal Animal Behaviour. The research team knew dogs could follow a human gaze, but they weren’t sure why this wasn’t observed more. As it turns out, dogs who were not trained were the X-factor.
The scientists recruited 145 pet border collies with a range of training levels and ages. The aim of the tests were to find out if age, habituation, or training influenced the dog’s tendency to follow a human’s gaze. The research team watched the dogs react as one person gazed toward a door. The untrained border collies consistently followed the gaze, while the dogs that had been trained ignored it. This finding surprised the research team. However, they concluded that it may be because trained dogs had learned how to focus on a person’s face, rather than letting their gaze follow the place where the human was looking.
The second phase of testing involved spending only five minutes teaching the untrained dogs to look at the face of the person in the room, they began ignoring their instinct to follow a person’s gaze.
The other surprising finding was that untrained border collies frequently glanced back and forth between the human and the door she was watching. This behavior had only previously been seen in humans and chimps. It is referred to as “check backs” or “double looking.” There are many future studies to be done to glean more about dogs’ abilities to understand what humans are doing and even thinking. This study is useful because it reminds researchers to always take into account the affect of training on the animals they study.