NorCalGSPrescue photo-Creative Commons License
Source: NorCalGSPrescue photo-Creative Commons License

Have you ever observed that when a dog enters a room he sometimes acts as if he recognizes that you are there and immediately comes over to you, while other times he appears as if he doesn't seem conscious of your presence for a period of time? Especially if you have a relationship with the dog it would seem likely that in those instances when you seem to be ignored the dog simply has not picked up any information or sensory cues that you are present. If nothing about you has caught his attention then obviously he is not going to respond to you.

Which types of sensory information are most likely to attract the dog's attention and let him know that you are there? This question came to mind just yesterday when I walked into my kitchen unnoticed by my dogs who were sitting and looking out of the window. Normally when my dogs recognize that I am in the kitchen they immediately come to be with me in the hopes that something edible might happen. The phone rang and I answered it and after a brief conversation I noticed that the dogs still weren't in the kitchen with me. So I stepped over to the doorway to see what they were doing. The moment they caught sight of me they immediately came on the run to be close to me. I suppose it is because I am a psychologist that I stopped for a moment to think about this situation, ultimately coming to the simple conclusion that in this instance the sound of my voice on the phone (the auditory cues) must not have been as powerful as the sight of me in the doorway (the visual cues) in announcing my presence in the kitchen to the dogs.

It is likely that my observation of the effectiveness of sight versus sound stimuli was triggered by an article that I recently read in the Open Journal of Animal Sciences. The study was conducted by Megumi Fukuzawa and Marina Watanabe from Nihon University's College of Bioresource Sciences at Fujisawa, Japan. They were interested in whether dogs were more influenced by hearing, seeing, or smelling the presence of a person.

These researchers set up a situation in which there was a large room with a small booth at one end. A person who the dog was familiar with could sit in the booth. The booth allowed the experimenters to control which kind of stimulation the dog would receive from the person in the booth. In the vision only condition the dogs could see the person, however no sounds were made and an odor diffuser and masking scent were used to prevent any cues based on smell. In the sound only condition the person read a newspaper using a neutral tone of voice while the ability to see the person was prevented by a screen. In the in the olfactory, or scent condition the dog could not see or hear the person, however a fan behind the woman helped to transmit her scent. There was also a condition in which all three sources of information, visual, auditory, and olfactory were available, and finally there was a condition in which all of the sources of information were screened.

On each trial the dog was released into the far end of the room, a distance away from the booth where the person sat. If the dog noticed the person in the booth and approached her it got a small reward. If the dog didn't notice the person after two minutes the trial was ended. The dog's behavior during each phase of the experiment was videotaped and analyzed.

When it comes to the simple question of how many times dogs detected the person and approached person during the allotted time, the finding that the highest rate was when all of the cues were present and lowest was when no cues were present is not surprising. When we look at the effectiveness of the individual sensory cues we find that each of them had about the same effect in terms of getting the dog to eventually recognize that the person was nearby (only a 3 percent difference among them). However there was a large difference in terms of how quickly the dogs noticed the person. When we look at each of the single cues we find that the visual cues caused significantly faster recognition than the auditory cues, and the scent cues produce the slowest responses. In addition the visual cues seem to have more arousing effect on the dog, since the dog tended to wag its tail more and to hang around the booth for a longer period of time once the person was detected compared to the auditory cues. The olfactory cues seem to produce relatively sluggish responses.

The experimenters conclude that "Visual, auditory, and olfactory information are all important for dogs in confirming the presence of a human, but visual information appears to have an advantage for dogs’ perception."

This finding is valuable because it has practical implications. It shows that dogs are more visually responsive than we used to think that they were. Most importantly it supports recent data which seems to show that hand signals and gestures may be a more effective way at giving dogs commands then using voice commands, click here or click here for more information about that. I suppose that it also says that if you are trying to attract your dog's attention hand waving and jumping around is going to be more effective than shouting at him.

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


Fukuzawa, M. andWatanabe, M. (2017) Relevance of Visual, Auditory, and Olfactory Cues in Pet Dogs’Awareness of Humans. Open Journal of Animal Sciences , 7, 297-304.

You are reading

Canine Corner

Does "Tough Love" Produce Better Working Dogs?

Puppies with overly attentive mothers have less success as working dogs.

What Makes a Dog Notice a Person

Is it the sight of a person, their sound, or their scent that dogs notice first?

Are Dog-Loving Millennials Driving House Prices Up?

Millennials list dogs ahead of marriage or children as a reason to buy a house