One thing that’s true about Americans is that we love our dogs. According to statistics, currently, there are at least 70 million pet dogs in the U.S. My family has one of them.
Our black German Shepherd Josie is a bona fide part of the family, and she plays a role in the day-to-day function of our household just like any other member. Her jobs? She provides love and companionship and is a fierce protector of our home. Imagine a machine-gun sounding bark when strangers come knocking. That’s Josie.
Any dog lover is quick to tell you that canines and their humans share a rich bond. While it may not come as a surprise to dog owners, a growing body of research on canine cognition and behavior suggests that our dogs often act more human than canine.
Experts date the domestication of dogs back about 16,000 years. During their evolution from wolves to pets, dogs have picked up many people-like traits. Specifically, researchers believe that dogs can display empathy, read our facial expressions, communicate jealousy, and even watch a show on TV. Pass the popcorn, Fido.
Scientists believe that dogs evolved with us and synched with some of our behaviors. According to Laurie Santos, director of the Yale Comparative Cognition Laboratory, by paying attention to, getting along with, and “tolerating” their humans, dogs have picked up traits that often mirror our own.
Some of the latest studies show the human side of our canine companions by the way they use their gaze and the way they “eavesdrop” on what’s going on around them. Let’s break the new research down.
The use of “gaze following” is an instinct that many animals come programmed with. From humans to dolphins to chimps to goats, many animals track the gazes of their companions. The reason they do this is to stay alert. By following a friend’s gaze, animals stay alert for things ranging from potential threats to tasty food.
Historically, dogs were believed to follow their human’s gaze only when food or toys were involved. But a new study suggests that gaze following in dogs extends to other situations, like when their humans gaze off into blank space, particularly if they are untrained.
According to doctoral student Lisa Wallis, a researcher at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria, she and her colleagues believed that dogs should be able to follow gazes in situations not involving treats or toys, but they wondered if training was the “missing piece of the puzzle.”
Wallis and her colleagues put their beliefs on dog gazing to the test. They recruited 145 pet border collies with a variety of ages and training levels. The goal? To identify if age, training, or habituation played a role in the dog’s tendency to follow human gaze.
The experiment started with Wallis gazing towards a door in front of each dog. Only the untrained border collies followed her gaze, while the trained dogs ignored it. Wallis posited the different response were due to trained dogs being taught to focus only on a person’s face, not where the person’s gaze goes.
To test this hypothesis, Wallis and colleagues devoted a mere five minutes to teaching the untrained dogs to look at her face. After this short training, they too began ignoring the instinct to follow her gaze to the door.
What Wallis found even more interesting is that the untrained dogs engaged in “check backs,” or “double looking.” These are scientific terms used to describe the behavior of glancing back and forth between Wallis and the door as if to try to determine what she was looking at. Before this study, this particular behavior has only been seen in humans and chimps. The fact that the untrained dogs followed her gaze to an uninteresting place, and then performed check backs, indicates that they may act more like their humans that what was once believed. Of course, training seemed to eliminate this behavior, but the study shows the instinct is present in dogs naturally.
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We call it people watching. Scientists call it social eavesdropping. No matter what we name it, this behavior is central to human’s social interactions. By engaging in social eavesdropping, we are able to figure out who’s nice and who’s mean. According to a recent study, we’re not the only ones “listening in” – our dogs are, too.
To test the extent to which dogs practice social eavesdropping, scientists observed 54 dogs. The dogs were divided into three groups: helper, non-helper, and control. Each dog then watched her owner try to retrieve a roll of tape from a container.
In the helper test group, the owner would request help from another person, who would then help by holding the container. For non-helper group participants, the owner would ask for help from another person who turned their back without helping. In the control group, the additional person simply turned her back without being asked for help. For all three groups, a third, “neutral” person sat quietly in the room. At the end of the experiment, the helper, non-helper, and neutral person all offered treats to the dogs.
The findings were telling. For the non-helper group, the dogs most frequently favored the neutral person’s treat, and shunned the treat from the non-helper. In the helper group, however, the dogs equally favored the helper and the neutral person. From this study, it would appear that dogs take our sides, ignoring people who are “mean” to their owners. Future research on the topic could help solidify this answer.
No matter what later research discovers, the point seems true that dogs are more like their humans than we ever believed before. If you think about how versatile our canine friends are, it makes sense that they could adapt in this way. After all, besides bringing our slippers and the morning paper, dogs are capable of helping us hunt, herding, offering protection, guiding those with special needs, and assisting police, fire and rescue personnel. Call me biased, but is there anything man’s best friend can’t do?