By Tara Parker-Pope
Research conducted at the University of Florida focused on the role of eye contact and facial cues in influencing canine behavior. Earlier studies have suggested that dogs seem to know when they are being watched and even wait to perform forbidden behavior like digging in the garden when they know their owners aren’t looking. In this study, researchers studied how human cues triggered begging behavior among 35 pet dogs, 18 shelter dogs and 8 wolves raised in captivity. First the animals were taught that the human strangers helping with the experiment were reliable sources of tasty treats. The testers stood close together and called to the animal, and both offered rewards of Spam cubes or Beggin’ Strips treats.
After four rewards, the experiment began. Two testers stood against a fence or wall, about 20 feet apart and with food in their pockets. The dog was held about 20 feet away, equidistant from both testers. In one condition, one tester faced the dog while the other turned her back. In another, a tester held a book near her face, while the other tester held the book in front of her face, as if she were reading. In a third condition, one tester held a bucket near the shoulder, while the other put the bucket over her head, blocking her eyes. Then, both testers called out to the dogs.
All the animals – pet dogs, shelter dogs and wolves - ignored the person whose back was turned and sought food from the person who was looking at them. “The question was, are dogs and wolves responsive to a human’s attentional state?” said Monique Udell, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. “Do they have a feeling of whether we can see them or not? Turning your back — that’s a cue all the animals were sensitive to.”
But when the testers held books, it was only the domestic dogs who avoided the person who appeared to be reading the book. “In a house where they’re used to people reading books, they are sensitive to those types of cues,” said Dr. Udell. “A pet dog will not beg from someone reading the book. They will go to the person looking at them. A wolf or a dog at a shelter is indifferent to that cue.”
Interestingly, in the bucket experiment, the animals, for the most part, were equally likely to seek food from the person with the bucket over her head as the person holding the bucket. Dr. Udell notes that most dogs don’t typically see a person with a bucket on his or her head, so they haven’t learned how to read that cue. “For us as humans, having a bucket over your head is very silly,’’ she said. “Dogs and wolves don’t get that. For the most part dogs and wolves would be equally likely to beg from someone with a bucket on your head because buckets don’t hold much meaning.’’
Surprisingly, one dog, a Labrador, performed very well on the bucket task, and the researchers wondered if perhaps the dog had seen its owner wearing a motorcycle helmet or hats. In the end, they couldn’t find an explanation for the dog’s strong performance and say it may simply be that the dog just got lucky in its guesses. The experiment shows that dogs are tuned into whether humans are paying attention. “Dogs don’t have to read our minds. Dogs read our behavior,” said Dr. Udell. “That might be why dogs are so successful in human homes. They are watching us. They are quick learners, they can figure out when you are going to give them the next treat or whether you are going to give them a bath. Whether we know it or not, we are training them.”
Dr. Udell said pet owners often get frustrated with bad dog behavior without realizing that they themselves have reinforced it, either by giving the dog a treat when they beg, skipping a bath when they protest or letting them sleep on the bed or couch. “If we as owners don’t remain consistent, the dog is learning what it’s allowed to do, even if in our heads, that’s not what we desire,” said Dr. Udell. “They are really good at knowing how to live the life they want inside the human home.”