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Dogs: Here's Why Some Canines Will Follow Your Gaze

Jun 16, 2015 12:35 AM EDT

Researchers have discovered that dogs are surprisingly adept at following their masters' gaze to objects or places, even without the help of pointing or verbal commands. It's yet another revelation that shows how these animals evolved to fit our needs, but also showcases some limitations on this relationship.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Animal Behavior, which details how your average domestic dog is incredibly skilled at reading human body language, but interestingly will not follow a human gaze if it has no meaning (ie- staring off into space).

That apparently is what sets dogs apart from many other animals, who often follow the gazes of their compatriots, even if there is no focus of the gaze.

To better understand this, think of the common scenario where a man walks into a crowded street and just starts staring upwards, not looking at anything in particular. On instinct, countless other pedestrians will stop and stare as well, even if they are unsure of what they should be looking for.

Past observations have revealed that animals such as primates, domesticated goats, several bird species, dolphins, fur seals, the red-footed tortoise, and even wolves all follow gazes to distant space. However, dogs, it seems, will only follow a gaze with laser-like precision if it's directed at some kind of object. Why is that? There were two theories concerning this, and they both involve the intensive exposure and bonding with humans that is mostly unique to man's best friend. (Scroll to read on...)

First, it could be argued that dogs are following aimless gazes early in life, but quickly learn to ignore most of these cues after spending enough time with a starry-eyed owner. In this way, older dogs would be best at only following purposeful gazes, if any at all.

The second theory has to do with training. An obedient dog is often taught to keep their eyes on their trainer. All other distractions then, even unprompted gazes, they learn to ignore.

To find out which theory was truly right, researchers with the University of Vienna, Australia, and the Royal Canin Research Center, in Aimargues, France, pooled their expertise to analyze the behavior of 145 border collies aged six months to 14 years old.

First, all the dogs were exposed to an experimental and control situation. After an experimenter told each dog to "watch" - a verbal commanded for attention - they then would either suddenly look towards the test-room door or cast a general gaze at the floor (control). Dogs who followed the experimental gaze but did not glance at the door for the control scenario were recognized as gaze-following canines. (Scroll to read on...)

According to the study, the accuracy of these responses did not decline with the age of the dog, despite what the first theory (desensitization to cues over time) suggests.

"From a very young age dogs have experience with doors when they live in human homes. The dogs develop an understanding that at any time an individual may enter the room, and therefore doors hold special social relevance to dogs," researcher Lisa Wallis added in a statement, explaining for the choice of their experimental focus.

The researchers then divided the gaze-following dogs into two groups: those who would be intensively trained in eye-contact (Group Eye), and a group that would be trained to touch a tennis ball with their paw (Group Ball).

Immediately following these sessions, the dogs were again given the gaze-following test.

Predictably, this drastically altered each dog's results, with less gaze following and more unwavering attention from all the dogs involved in formal training.

Still, what's impressive about these results is that they showcase how quickly dogs are able to abandon natural instinct (to gaze with us) in place of unwavering trust. Experts have argued in the past that the domestic dog has co-evolved to depend on humanity more than any other animal on Earth, and it's results like these that really help that idea hit home.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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