Watching dogs watch

If you put a dog in front of the television, it may or may not look at what’s on the screen. But if a person on the screen looks right at the dog and speaks to it, the dog will watch intently.
In a new study, the dog was even seen to follow the gaze of the person on the screen. This observation is extraordinary; even chimpanzees don’t do this. It had already been observed that dogs attend to human communication signals. And dogs, like children, can follow the direction of a finger pointing, but chimpanzees can’t. The question was, could dogs follow more subtle signals, such as following a person’s gaze?

A scientist from the Central European University in Budapest made use of a technique used earlier only with children. In a test, the dogs were spoken to by a person (a stranger) on the television screen. Objects had been placed to the left and right of this person. The person looked at the dog and said, “Hello, dog” with enthusiastic intonation. In another scenario, the dog was addressed in a flat tone while the person looked down. Next, the person looked at one of the objects for 5 seconds. A special camera mounted under the television screen recorded the gaze of the dog.

This experiment was conducted on 22 dogs of various breeds. The dogs always looked at the person on the screen. But when the person looked at and greeted the dog enthusiastically, the dogs followed the person’s gaze to the object 69% of the time. When the person looked down and spoke blandly, the dogs didn’t look at either object more frequently.

The results of the study, published in Current Biology, are virtually comparable to experiments done with 6-month-old children. The investigators were surprised at this similarity. They also have plans for more experiments, varying the tone of the greeting and whether or not the person will look at the dog.