Are Dogs Able To Follow A Human Gaze?
According to a new research paper published in Science Daily many species of primates such as domesticated goats, dolphins, fur seals, wolves and other species are able to follow a gaze. Gaze following according to scientists is a basic response found in many species. Researchers at the University of Vetmeduni, Vienna, found that dogs are special in that they are able to follow a human gaze to objects like food and toys, yet dogs were not able to follow a human gaze into distant space.
Dr. Lisa Wallis and Dr. Durga Chapagain at the Messerli Research Institute, Vetmeduni, Vienna, wanted to see whether this skill was affected by a dog’s aging, prior training and habituation. The result was surprising. According to the research paper “Gaze following to human gaze cues did not differ over the dogs’ lifespan, however, formal training was found to directly influence gaze following in dogs. The results from this study were published in the Journal Animal Behavior.
The researchers addressed this by offering two explanations. Firstly, that dogs could lose their innate gaze response due to aging, since they are frequently exposed to human gaze cues throughout their lifespans. Another explanation suggested was that formal training from agility, obedience training, and trick training could interfere with a dog’s response to gaze cues. This is because dogs are trained to respond to their handler’s cues while looking at the handler. They have to wait for commands and ignore distractions while watching their handlers.
“From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time a individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs.” Dr.Lisa Wallis via Science Daily.
How Was This Research Done?
Dr.Lisa Wallis and her colleagues tested 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years. All the research took place at the Clever Dog Lab, Vetmeduni Institute. Here researchers wanted to test whether habituation, and/ or dog training influenced a dog’s gaze following response. They also wanted to see whether this changed over a period of time by comparing groups of dogs according to their different ages.
Dogs Of All Ages Are Able To Follow a Human Gaze
The researchers did the following:
- They divided the dogs into two groups according to the training that they had received prior to being tested.
- Both groups took a test in which their initial gaze following performance was measured. This was done in a test and a controlled condition.
- The researcher called out to the dog using his or her name, and using the cue “watch” to get the dog’s attention.
- The researcher then either turned her head slightly to look at the door of the testing room in the test condition, or looked down at the floor to her feet in the control condition.
- When the dogs looked at the door within 2 seconds during the test condition, but did not look at the door during the control condition, a gaze response was recorded.
When these trials had been completed, the main group (Group Eye) was given an intensive training session with the researcher. According to the Science Daily research paper, the intensive training session entailed initiation of eye contact between researcher and dog over a 5-minute period.
The second group of dogs (Group Ball) was trained to touch a tennis ball with their paw. The research paper demonstrates that this group of dogs was included so that any effects of decreased response due to repeated exposure to the human gaze and fatigue could be ruled out. When all the training was completed the dogs were tested again in the gaze following trial, so that the researchers could determine how short-term training affected the initiation of eye contact on a dog’s gaze following performance.
Does Training For Eye Contact Affect a Dog’s Tendency To Follow a Human Gaze?
According to Science Daily, dogs that had received more formal training throughout their lifespan, displayed a lower gaze following response compared to dogs that had received little or no prior training.
Short-term training also decreased a dog’s gaze following response, and increased a dog’s gaze to the human face.
In this research paper, both Dr. Wallis and Dr. Chapagain concluded that formal training was very influential and had more of an effect on dogs than aging or habituation. They also suggested that this may explain why prior research possibly failed to find a gaze following response when cues to distant space were employed, and also when compared to other species, dogs did not perform as well. The researchers also stated that the possibility of their looking at the doors, and using strong attention- getting commands may have also benefited the results of the study.
Dr. Wallis also goes on to explain “ From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter a room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs.”
Dr. Wallis and her colleague Dr. Chapagain are currently working on studying the effects of diet on cognitive aging in older dogs. They are also looking for volunteers that would like to participate in this study. Food will be provided for free. For more information, visit: http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at/en/university/
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