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What Is Your Dog Looking At?

New research suggests human hands get special attention.

Erwin Drews CC0
Source: Erwin Drews CC0

I remember watching an episode of the TV show Lassie in which she and a small boy were being pursued. It was nearing sundown, and she found a hiding place for the two of them. The camera then zoomed in for a close-up of the face of that handsome Collie. She glanced to the left and then slowly moved her eyes and head all the way to the right as if scanning the horizon for trouble. She then moved her head and eyes back to the center and slowly and deliberately looked down while the camera pulled back to reveal that she was gazing at the little boy apparently fast asleep at her feet. She resumed her scanning of the horizon. It was all very dramatic and emotional—clearly of a quality that we would expect from a good human actor.

I had always wondered how they had gotten Lassie to move her head and eyes under the precise degree of control required by the script. A number of years ago I finally got my answer when I had the opportunity to meet Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of the original Lassie (actually a male dog named Pal). He also trained many generations of Collies who later who succeeded Pal in that role, as well as quite a few dogs of different breeds for various movie roles. Eventually he passed the franchise over to his son Bob Weatherwax, who continues it today.

Rudd was already in his late sixties when we met, and we discussed a number of things having to do with his life, his dogs, and his training methods. Because the scene that I described above had so impressed me, I specifically asked him about it.

He told me, "When I started to work with Pal, I noticed that he had a tendency to look at my hands. If I moved my hand to the right, he turned his head to follow it, and if I moved it up he tilted his head back to look at it, and so forth. I decided to use that in guiding him. If the camera required a close-up where he turned his head to look in a particular direction, I would stand near the camera and simply move my hand in that direction. He followed it with his eyes and head and it looked very impressive on the film. I later expanded the process so that I would move my hand in a direction and then give him a signal to go and he would run out in the direction that I had indicated by moving my hand."

"I sort of wondered whether this behavior on the part of Pal was simply because the fact that I gave him treats, and those treats would come from my hand. At first, it seemed to me that that guess was confirmed, since over the years of training, his tendency to follow my hand with his eyes did get stronger. However, in working with other dogs, it seemed to me that they also had a tendency to look at my hands naturally, and so using my hand to guide the dogs has become part of my pattern of training and control when I am working with them."

The answer that Weatherwax gave was interesting, but I had my doubts. It seemed to me that since dogs are such social animals, and spend considerable amounts of time monitoring the emotions and intentions of the humans they live with, that they would be more likely to selectively gaze at our faces rather than our hands.

Some preliminary work by researchers tracking the eye movements of primates (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) has shown that their first glances at people and at other primates are almost always directed to the face. However, what the dogs are looking at when they gaze at people had never been specifically tested until some recent research by a team of investigators headed by Tadatoshi Ogura from the School of Veterinary Medicine at Kitasato University in Japan.

In this new study, the basic procedure used was to directly record the eye movements that dogs made when they were looking at full-body images of people, dogs, and cats. This is not an easy task since the dog must also learn to hold his head relatively still while viewing these images, and for each short session of recording the eye movement monitor must be recalibrated.

The results were interesting and, at least for me, somewhat surprising. When the dogs looked at images of other dogs, their first eye movements tended to be to that dog's head, and their gaze dwelt there for the longest periods of time, just as I would have a suspected. The researchers found a similar pattern when the dogs looked at pictures of cats, with the head area drawing the most attention and the longest gazes, but also a good deal of time was spent on the cat's body.

When it came to looking at images of human beings, it turns out that the data confirm what Rudd Weatherwax had told me so many years ago. The parts of the human's body that tended to attract the most attention and eye movements were the person's hands and arms. Although this was consistent across the sample of dogs tested, there appeared to be some evidence that in some ways, training may be relevant to the results, much as Weatherwax had suggested to me.

If the image of the human was simply an individual standing and facing the camera with arms by the side, the first and longest eye movements were usually directed to the hands and arms. But if the pose was one in which the human was giving a learned hand signal commanding the dog to sit, lie down, or stay, this attracted even more frequent eye movements in the direction of the hand and the dog tended to lock its gaze onto it for an even longer period of time.

Based on these results, the investigators concluded that dogs are likely to first look at your hands, before checking out any emotional expressions that you might have on your face. This may explain why other data has suggested that using hand signals may be the most effective way of training and controlling your dogs—even significantly better than the use of voice commands.

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Ogura, T.; Maki, M.; Nagata, S.; Nakamura, S. (2020). Dogs (Canis familiaris) Gaze at Our Hands: A Preliminary Eye-Tracker Experiment on Selective Attention in Dogs. Animals, 10, 755,