Dogs take note when you engage them with your eyes. Photo by Bernadett Miklosi.
“Hey, Woofles, there’s a treat for you in the bowl over there.”
You look at Woofles in a meaningful way, and then you look away toward the bowl where the treat is. Woofles realizes that you mean for him to stop looking at you and to look where you’re looking. But how did he figure that out?
In fact, most animals wouldn’t know what you mean. The fact that you’re looking at something, or indeed pointing at something, doesn’t register with them. If you’re pointing, they just keep looking at your finger rather than realizing that you mean for them to look at the thing you’re pointing at.
Ravens understand this. In fact, they use their wings and beaks in much the same way we do, to make gestures and to point toward something they find interesting. Bottlenose dolphins easily understand what you mean when you gesture toward something. And chimpanzees and a few monkey species have also been seen to understand this.
Dogs have been around humans long enough to figure out that staring and pointing are referential – it’s not about the finger or the eyes; it’s all about the direction. But now, scientists have discovered something even more interesting: Dogs will only pick up on the cue if you first engage them directly with your eyes. If you just point or stare without engaging them first, they’ll generally ignore you.
The new study concludes that, like small children, dogs notice these minor details in our communication and use them to interpret our intent.
The research team presented dogs with two videos. In the first, a woman says, “Hi, dog,” while looking straight at the camera and then turning her head toward a container. In this case, the dog follows her gaze.
But when she looks down, rather than at the camera, as she says, “Hi, dog” and then looks toward the container, the dog does not follow her gaze when she turns to look at the container.
In other words, dogs pick up on the subtle difference in our cues. They read human behavior and understand when they are specifically being addressed. The same is true of human children, but only when they’re at least 6 months old.
“Dogs are functionally similar to a 6-month-old, to a 1-year-old,” said Dr. Adam Miklosi, a behavioral biologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest and one of the study’s authors. “Being in a human family gives the dogs the ability to interact in a human way. You can really treat your dog as a sort of infant, which you wouldn’t really do with a goat or another domesticated animal.”