Eye contact is one of the first things that I teach to my own dogs and is a basic behavior that we teach to all of our students at my training school, AutumnGold.
In our training classes, we introduce eye contact very early because it is easy to teach and provides rapid and positive results to owners who are often frustrated with their young and exuberant dog’s lack of attention. It is also a great method for teaching targeting and timing skills.
Really, what’s not to like?
Well, until recently, I thought, nothing at all. However, a newly published study motivated me to think a bit more deeply about the behaviors that we train dogs to do and how they may, however subtlety, influence our dogs’ social lives. It has to do with tests of social cognition; specifically how dogs may or may not use human gaze as a communicative signal.
Following gaze as a social behavior: The inclination to follow the gaze of another individual is considered to be a socially facilitated response. It makes sense of course because one of the ways that social beings communicate is by attending to what others are paying attention to. Gaze following behaviors have been demonstrated in a number of social species that include chimpanzees, wolves, several species of birds, domesticated goats and of course, humans. Dogs have been shown to be able to follow human gaze and other intention gestures such as pointing when engaged in an object choice test (i.e. when they are being asked to choose between a series of cups holding food). However, evidence for the dog’s ability to follow a human’s gaze toward distant space (i.e. when food choice is not involved) has been conflicting and inconclusive.
Why are dogs different from other social species? Currently, there are three working theories that attempt to explain why dogs may not consistently demonstrate gaze following:
- Habituation hypothesis: This explanation suggests that dogs who live closely with people gradually lose their innate tendency to follow human gaze because we gaze at a lot of things that are not relevant to them. Over time, the dog will habituate to this and stop responding. (Face it, in today’s world, many of us spend a lot of time staring at things that hold absolutely no interest to our dogs. Consider our use of computers, TV sets and Kindles, to name just a few).
- Formal training hypothesis: A second theory, and one that is not mutually exclusive of habituation (i.e. they could both be in play here), is that dogs who are formally trained to offer eye contact with their owners, either on cue or as a “default” behavior, are less likely to spontaneously follow the owner’s gaze into space because looking into the owner’s eyes is a behavior that directly competes with turning away to follow gaze. (This is the hypothesis that could put a bit of a kink in my undying love for “default eye contact” training).
- Lifelong learning hypothesis: A final theory that is in direct opposition to the habituation hypothesis poses that because dogs who live in homes are repeatedly asked to look to their owners for direction in many informal situations, that they actual may become better, not worse, at following our gaze. Examples of this are communicating to your dog that it is time for a walk (looking at the door), time to eat (gazing at the food bowl or towards the kitchen) or time for a game (searching for the favorite ball). So, in effect, the lifelong learning hypothesis works in direct opposition to the habituation hypothesis and predicts that dogs who live in homes should be quite proficient at gaze-following with their humans.
So, which of these theories (or combination) might be in play when our dogs are asked to “follow our gaze”? A group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria’s Clever Dog Lab decided to ask a group of Border Collies.
The Study: In a cleverly designed experiment, the researchers tested all three of these hypotheses. First, they selected 147 dogs, all Border Collies living in homes as family pets. The dogs were between the ages of 6 months and 13 years. Using this wide age range allowed the researchers to test the lifelong learning and habituation hypotheses. To test the formal training hypothesis, the degree of training that each dog had received was assessed using an owner questionnaire. Dogs were classified into five categories, ranging from no formal training to extensively trained. A group of 13 additional dogs acted as a positive control group. All of the dogs completed a series of three experimental phases with a familiar trainer (one of the researchers):
- Phase 1: In the first phase (untrained) the trainer lured the dog into position in front of her and lured or cued the dog to gaze into her eyes. As soon as the dog initiated eye contact, the trainer turned her head quickly away from the dog to gaze towards a door (test condition) or to look down at her feet (control condition).
- Phase 2: In the second phase, the dogs in the test group were trained to offer and hold eye contact on command. The 13 dogs in the positive control group were trained to touch a ball that was sitting on the ground with their paw. Clicker training was used to teach both behaviors.
- Phase 3: Following successful eye contact or touch-ball training, the dogs were retested using the techniques described in Phase 1. Instead of luring the dogs into place and to offer eye contact, the test dogs were cued to offer eye contact and the control dogs were cued to touch the ball before the trainer shifted her gaze towards the door or to her feet.
Results: Here are the researchers’ findings:
- Some dogs follow distance gaze: In the pre-trained phase, about half of the dogs (48 %) spontaneously followed the gaze of the trainer towards the door. Although the age of the dog did not significantly influence gaze-following, young dogs in late puppyhood and geriatric dogs were more strongly inclined to look at the door than were adult, middle-aged dogs. The absence of a clear age-effect is evidence against both the habituation and the life-long learning hypotheses.
- Training eye contact interfered with gaze following: Following clicker training to offer eye contact, the number of dogs who followed the trainers gaze towards the door significantly decreased. The dogs who were trained to offer eye contact were also less likely to follow the trainer’s gaze toward the door than were the dogs who had been trained to place their paw on a ball. (In other words, it was not just the training that caused the change – it was specifically training for eye contact on cue.)
- Formal training reduced gaze following: In both the pre-trained and the post-trained tests, dogs who had received more formal training with their owners were less likely to follow gaze towards the door than were dogs with little or no formal training experience. Because the dogs had a variety of training experiences, (for example obedience, agility, nose work, tricks, freestyle, search and rescue and herding), it was not possible to identify the effects of specific types of training (a subject the authors identify for future study).
- Study limitations: Yes, the study used just Border Collies, and yes, indeed, as a breed, they are quite the smart little peanuts. Not only are they highly trainable, but they also have a very strong tendency to look to humans for cues. The researchers acknowledge this and open up the question of what, if any, breed or breed-type differences might we expect to see in distance gaze-following behaviors? This is certainly a topic for further (if difficult to accomplish) investigation. A second issue might be the use of a door as the focus point for distance gazing. Certainly doorways are not without meaning to dogs as they are conditioned objects that predict people coming and going and opportunities for walks, which would influence a dog’s tendency to attend. However, it is accepted that individuals tendency to follow gaze more readily toward relevant objects. Of interest in this study is the change in those tendencies in response to training.
Take Away for Dog Owners: The researchers in this study were the first to show that a relatively high proportion of dogs living in homes are likely to follow a person’s gaze towards distant space. In other words, they use our social cues to learn about and respond to our shared environment. Many people know this and probably will say that their dogs demonstrate this daily. However, in my view, the more important implications of these results are what they tell us about our ability to inhibit, albeit with the very best of intentions, our dog’s natural social behaviors. In the study, when the same dogs were trained for a short period of time to offer eye contact on cue, the training interfered with the ability of at least some of the dogs to follow gaze. The data also showed that lifetime formal training has an inhibitory influence upon this form of social cognition in dogs.
Why should we care?
Personally, these results led me to think a bit more carefully about when and how often I ask for default eye contact with my dogs. If one agrees that social cognition, the ability to understand and respond to the social cues of others, is an important part of a dog’s life quality, then we should make conscious decisions regarding the types of training that contribute to or detract from our dogs’ natural social behavior. I am certainly not advocating an end to training eye contact. For me, it remains an important behavior to teach to dogs because eye contact contributes to strong communicative bonds and facilitates learning. One cannot really teach new behaviors after all, if we fail to have our dog’s attention. Rather, I am suggesting that we consciously strive for a balance between those training activities that require our dog’s undivided attention and those in which we encourage dogs to use their cognitive skills and work independently.
For example, at AutumnGold we offer both Canine Freestyle and K-9 Nose Work as advanced training classes. Freestyle is tons of fun for dogs and owners and the precise training that it involves teaches dogs body awareness, complex behaviors and chaining. Similar to obedience training, agility and many other dog sports, this training requires clear communication between trainer and dog, and eye contact is an important aspect of that communication. K-9 Nose Work on the other hand, encourages dogs to work more independently, using their scenting abilities to find a hidden object or selected scent. Like many trainers, we have found that there are very few dogs (and owners) who do not absolutely love these Nose Work games.
I am the first to say that I love having my dogs attention via eye contact, especially when we are training complex tricks, obedience exercises and Freestyle moves. However, it is every bit as exciting for me to see them work independently to find a hidden scent, play tug with their doggy friends, retrieve a hidden toy, or have free swim time in the pool. For me, these data served as a reminder that allowing our dogs to attend to their social environment, to work independently of us, and to practice (and be allowed to show) their social cognition talents are as important (and fun) as are training for good manners and canine sports.
Cited Study: Wallis LJ, Range R, Muller, CA, Serisier S, Huber L, Viranyi Z. Training for eye contact modulates gaze following in dogs. Animal Behavior 2015; 106:27-35.