With a Little Help from My Friends

There is a large body of research showing that dogs are quite capable of noticing and responding to human communication cues such as body language, tone of voice, and various forms of pointing. Dogs also will initiate eye contact with people and respond to human gaze. We are well matched in this respect because humans, of course, use eye contact to communicate all of the time. Some of the reasons that we actively seek out the gaze of another person may be as a bid for attention, to communicate friendliness or animosity, or to request assistance.  Similarly, many dogs will approach and initiate eye contact with their owner when they are asking for something (a walk, food, petting or a game of fetch) and in some cases, when asking for a bit of help.

Use some help

These apparent requests for assistance are of interest because it seems that this is one of the ways in which dogs differ significantly from wolves. One of the earliest studies of canine social cognition compared the response of dogs and wolves when presented with an “unsolvable task” (1). In this test, the subject is first allowed to solve a food puzzle in which a bit of food in a container can be accessed by manipulating the container. After several successful trials, the nefarious researcher, unbeknownst to the dog, steps in and alters the puzzle, making the task now impossible to solve. So, the method that the dog used to previously obtain the food is now futile. (I know, frustrating. Bad researcher.)

When presented with this situation, most dogs work at the puzzle for a while and then turn to look back at their owner, presumably as a request for aid. In contrast, the wolves rarely look back at humans. The initial research showing that “wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do” served as the jumping-off point for a flood of innovative research regarding  dogs’ skills in various forms of social cognition.

Dog looks back


Since that time, additional studies have shown that a number of factors can influence an individual dog’s ability to seek and understand human gaze. Some of these are a dog’s living situation (homes vs. shelters), the type of relationship that the dog has with people, and the degree and type of training that the dog has experienced.

Naturally, my ears perked up at this last bit – the influence that training can have on our dogs’ tendency to ask us for help.

Cute ears of dobermann dog


While still in the early stages of study, examination of the ways in which different types of training may influence a dog’s inclination to “ask for help” has already provided a number of interesting results. Here are some of the major findings so far:

  • I can do it myself! When dogs were focused on a solvable task such as learning to open a food-box with their paw or muzzle, those who had a history of formal training were less likely to look to their owner as they worked at the task than were dogs who had experienced little or no formal training (2). The types of training included agility, search and rescue, freestyle, hunting trials and schutzhund, but differences between the training types were not examined.
  • Agility dogs ask; SAR dogs don’t: Conversely, when the task presented to the dogs was NOT solvable (i.e. the unsolvable task paradigm), things suddenly changed up a bit. Dogs who were trained in Agility were more likely to look to their owners when attempting to solve the problem, while Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs were less likely (or looked for shorter durations) (3).
  • Water rescue dogs ask (everyone): Another type of training that has been studied is water rescue. The training that dogs receive for this work  is intensive and requires dogs to respond reliably to their handler’s cues during highly stressful situations. A unique aspect is that these dogs must also be attentive to a stranger who may be behaving erratically (i.e. as he attempts to not drown). This suggests that these dogs may possess both a high degree of dependency upon their handlers’ cues plus an ability to respond to a stranger and so to. work somewhat independently. Indeed results of gazing tests have shown this to be true. For example, when faced with an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, water rescue dogs were more likely to look to their owners for help than were pet dogs (4). In another study, when owners and strangers were compared during the unsolvable task paradigm, water rescue dogs looked initially to their owner rather than to the stranger, but overall they gazed at both people longer than did pet dogs (5). In other words, dogs trained for water rescue preferentially looked for help from their owners, but were also willing to ask a stranger to step up and lend a hand.

With evidence showing that the specific type of work that a dog is trained to do may influence a dog’s inclination to seek help from their owner (or a stranger), the same group of Italian researchers decided to look at a very specific type of training that not only requires that dogs work independently of their handlers (like SAR dogs), but in some cases, to “actively disobey”, making decisions for the welfare of their sight-impaired owner.

Guide Dog


The Study: The researchers evaluated four groups of dogs during the unsolvable task paradigm (6). These were 13 guide dogs who had just completed their training program but had not yet been placed with a blind recipient; 11 guide dogs who had been living with their blind owner for at least one year, and two pet dog control groups, one age-matched to each set of guide dogs.  All of the dogs in the study were trained at the same training school and were purebred Labrador retrievers.

Results: The researchers were interested in discovering the differences, if any, between dogs who had recently finished their guide dog training and had been housed in a kennel and those who were working as guide dogs and living with their owner and his/her family in a home. Here is what they found:

  • New guide dogs did not ask: The recently trained dogs spent more time interacting with the apparatus and less time gazing toward the trainer or a stranger than did the older guide dogs who were living in homes (or than the pet dogs). This suggests that the recently trained dogs were more apt to work independently and less likely to “ask for help” when faced with a new and frustrating task.
  • Guide dogs in homes did ask: In contrast, the working guide dogs who had been living in homes for at least a year were as likely to turn to look at a person to ask for help as were the pet dogs. Unlike their younger counterparts, these dogs behaved like pet dogs in that they would turn and seek help when presented with a new problem.

Was it type of training or was it living situation? There was an unavoidable confounding factor in this study. The dogs who had recently completed their training were also living in a kennel, with limited daily access to their trainer. Conversely, dogs who had been out and working for at least a year (and whose training may have lapsed to some degree) were living in homes with people, in settings similar or identical to those of pet dogs. So, the reduced tendency of the young guide dogs to seek help (and their greater inclination to work independently) may have been due to their recent training history during which many of the trained tasks required them to work independently and when they were not reinforced for giving visual attention to the trainer. Alternatively, the young dogs had also been living in a kennel and had not experienced an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with human caretakers. Similarly, the mature guide dogs may have either experienced some lapse in training and/or may have developed a greater dependency on the humans in their home (which included both their blind handler and sighted family members).

Take-Away for Dog Folks: What these studies collectively suggest is that the life experience of training generally promotes increased confidence and independence in dogs when they are presented with novel tasks that are solvable. However, when dogs are experiencing a failure to succeed at a new task (and possibly are becoming frustrated), the type of training that they have experienced may influence their inclination whether or not to look to their owners for help. Dogs who have been trained to work closely with a human partner and to depend upon their cues  (such as agility dogs and water rescue dogs) are more likely to look to their people for help. Conversely, dogs who have been trained at tasks in which they work more independently, such as SAR dogs and young guide dogs, are less likely to ask. Most interesting perhaps is the evidence that a dog’s living situation may trump his or her training history, as seen in the guide dog study. It is possible that living in close proximity with human caretakers and experiencing daily interaction and communication may be more important than training in terms of encouraging our dogs to turn and to ask for a little help from their friends.

Get by with

Cited Studies:

  1. Miklósi A, Kubinyi e, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, Csányi V. A Simple Reason for a Big Difference: Wolves Do Not Look Back at Humans, but Dogs Do. Current Biology 2003; 13:763-766.
  2. Marshall-Pescini S, Valsecchi P, Petak I, Accorsi PA, Prato-Previde E. Does training make you smarter? The effects of training on dogs’ performance (Canis familiaris) in a problem-solving task. Behavioural Processes 2008; 78:449-454.
  3. Marshall-Pescini S, Pallalacqua C, Barnard S, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. Agility and search and rescue training differently affect pet dogs’ behavior in socio-cognitive task. Behavioural Processes 2009; 81:416-422.
  4. Merola I, Marshall-Pescini S, D’Aniello B, Prato-Previde E. Social referencing: Water rescue trained dogs are less affected than pet dogs by the stranger’s message. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2013; 147:132-138.
  5. D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Prato=Previde E, Valsecchi P. Gazing toward humans: A study on water rescue dogs using the impossible task paradigm. Behavioural Processes 2015: 110:68-73.
  6. Scandurra A, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P, Aria M, D’Aniello B. Guide dogs as a model for investigating the effect of life experience and training on gazing behavior. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:937-944.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).




24 thoughts on “With a Little Help from My Friends

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  4. I can certainly find some relation to this with our rescue dog. She hardly ever gave us eye contact at the start of our time together and was very independent, to the extent that she would play on her own with a ball, dropping it down the stairs and running to fetch it if nobody would play with her.

    Two years and lots of training on, and when she loses her kong under the coffee table she gives a couple of paw swipes to it, and then looks at me. If I ignore her, she’ll try again, and then look at me. I need a larger kong, or a lower coffee table! Just like a two year old child! 🙂


  5. Asking for help depends on the individual dog itself too. I have two – same litter – that are SAR dogs. Both live inside with me and are treated identical in all aspects. When we are working a trail, my male will turn and look at me when he loses scent and needs help. My female just goes into a different search mode which I can recognize from our years together. She never looks back to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Trudy – That is so interesting, especially knowing that they are litter mates and are trained for the same activity. I know we should not be surprised, as dogs are individuals, just like people. However, the more that we learn about the complexity of our dog’s mental lives and their deep cognitive abilities, the better we become at training, caring for, and providing them with rich and happy lives. Thanks for reading and for the comment! Linda


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  7. Such a fascinating subject! I wonder if there is also an element of temperament at work, or even age and social position? I have two small dogs, about 7 months apart in age. The older, Sophy, is a very self confident Papillon – she will persevere at a task until it is solved, find people she knows by scent without ever having been taught, work out how to climb to reach supposedly “inaccessible” objects, and, when she decides she needs help, ask the nearest human very clearly to solve the intractable problem for her. Poppy, the younger of the two, does the easy stuff, then goes for a snooze… She just seems to have a very relaxed, non-driven nature!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Frances, Love this example of your two dogs! Yes, I think that (just as with people!), individual personalities differ in their propensity to work out things independently. The challenge of course, is working out what is a product of learning/environment and what comes more innately. I am fascinated by all of the social cognition work and excited to see what new studies will be telling us in 2016! Thanks for reading and for your comment! Linda


    • Hi Graham – Yes, I think that is definitely a possibility, seeing that there is a lot of new research showing that dogs are quite proficient at observational learning! I am excited about seeing where this research area leads! Linda


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  9. Great article !

    I see another direction in which the cake might be sliced – dogs who are working at tasks that require visual and tactile skills ask for help, those that use their noses (in these studies the SAR dogs) do not. Humans are at least as good as dogs at visual and tactile work, but hopeless at scent and I am sure that it does not take scent dogs long to work out that their handlers do not have a clue.

    It would be interesting to measure help-seeking in scent dogs that give false alerts in response to handlers’ expectations, a behaviour that is acceptable in. say, drug dogs but a disaster in SAR or wildlife scat dogs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting point, Peter. It makes sense that dogs who are using their noses are naturally working more independently than those who are not. However, this would not be true of guide dogs, and the most recent study showed that recently trained guide dogs did not turn to ask for help. It was only those dogs who had been in homes for a year or more who developed this response, either because of the strong bonds they had formed with their owner and/or the family or because they lacked the strong reinforcement history of recent training that their younger counterparts had experienced. Regardless, I think that this line of study is fascinating as there are many different tasks that dogs are trained to perform, and it is interesting to find out how that training may affect their social cognition. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Linda


    • Hi Judy – Thanks for your kind words! I am glad that you enjoy The Science Dog and find the essays helpful! Please feel welcome to share them with Vetanswers anytime. (And, if some of your colleagues are interested, “Beware the Straw Man” is a collection of essays from the blog)! Best wishes, Linda


  10. While interesting about dogs, I’ve worked for many decades with both small and very large companies in several fields. After reading the article, I had to wonder how closely this may also apply with people.

    Liked by 3 people

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