Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Do Dogs Really Know When We Are Talking to Them?

Direct eye contact and tone of voice determine if your dog pays attention to you

I was sitting in a hospital reception area waiting for a medical scan. One section of the room had been set aside specifically for children, and it contained some toys and a big flat screen television. The TV was tuned to a children's program which involved a blue dog and his human companion, a man named Bob. Parked in front of the TV was a stroller containing a child, perhaps one and a half to two years of age. While her mother sat nearby reading a magazine, the little girl stared at the screen. At one point in the show Bob looked straightforward as if directly addressing the child and said, in that singsong voice we use for children, "Hello you out there. Blue needs some help. Should he look in this box first [at which point Bob looked at the box on the right] or this box first [at which point Bob looked at the box on the left]?"

From a psychological viewpoint what the child did next was extremely interesting. When Bob looked at the box on the right the child's gaze also shifted to the right, and when he looked to the left the child's gaze shifted to the left. Prior to that moment it seemed to me that the child's eyes moved randomly around the screen and were not at all directed to where Bob happened to be looking. This is an example of what psychologists call "gaze following." Sometime between six months and 18 months of age human children start to do this. Specifically, when presented with behaviors from another person who is indicating their intention to communicate information, children start to follow that person's gaze and begin looking at what that person looks at. The kinds of behaviors that trigger gaze following usually include direct eye contact and being addressed verbally in a friendly or inviting manner. Psychologists refer to these signals has "ostensive behaviors." Once the child has cued into such behaviors they then treat the communicator's line of sight as if it were a tool trying to direct their attention and give them information as to where to look.

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dog pet canine greeting talk communication human bond gaze voice
Given what science has revealed about canine behavior, it is reasonable to presume that since dogs seem to have the mental ability of children between the ages of two and three years, they should respond similarly. So why do we care? The reason is that if we understand this behavior it could help to answer an important question, specifically how do dogs recognize when we are talking directly to them? After all dogs have to sort out those instances when we are trying to give information to them from all of those other many times when we are talking to someone else (or to ourselves) while the dog is in our presence.

A group of researchers from Hungary, Erno Téglás, Anna Gergely, Krisztina Kupán, Ádám Miklósi, and József Topál, provide some useful data on this issue in a research report published in the journal Current Biology. They used some high tech eye tracking equipment to monitor the viewing activity of 16 adult pet dogs. The dogs watched a video where a human actor stood between two empty plastic flowerpots, greeted the dog, and then turned to one of the pots. All the while the equipment was recording the movements of the dog's eyes to see if they would also look at the pot that the human was observing.

Now the trick is that before the human in the video looked at one of the pots, her greeting to the dog could be in one of two forms. In the ostensive communication condition the actor used the classic way in which we greet something young or cute — employing a high pitched voice, direct eye contact, and a cheery tone. In this manner, the actor said "Hi dog!" It seems that humans instinctively know that both children and animals are more likely to respond to a high pitched voice, which probably explains why we can't stop ourselves from cooling and babbling baby talk at cute creatures. In the non-ostensive condition, the actor used the same words, but spoke in a steady, uninflected, businesslike voice, while avoiding eye contact. For humans at least, the first sequence carries a clear message that some sort of direct communication is intended while the second suggests that the person has no intention of sharing information with the viewer.

After the dogs viewed the video the researchers scored their eye movements. They divided the video screen up into six sectors and determined whether the dog was looking at the same location that the actor was.

dog pet canine greeting attentioncommunication human bond gaze voice

The results showed that after the greeting involving eye contact and a high pitched voice, the dogs were more likely to follow along with the humans gaze, responding in the same manner that young children do. Thus the researchers summarize the results by saying, "Gaze-following behavior among humans is an early emerging pervasive response and is frequently considered as a window into social cognition of different nonhuman species. For instance, dogs have a robust ability to share attention with humans, and they are very skillful in using human gaze in object choice situations. Dogs are sensitive to the direction of human visual attention and are skillful users of human directional signals that have potential referential significance. Moreover, increasing evidence suggests that dogs show early and infant-like sensitivity to cues that signal the human's communicative intent."

So if you are trying to convey information to your dog, this research suggests that most of you are probably already doing the right thing by looking him directly in the eye first. But it also suggests that all of our baby talk, like "Who's a good boy?" in a high pitched singsong voice, is not only justified, but may be one of the necessary keys to getting your dog's attention, and encouraging him to watch what you are doing.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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