Dogs respond to human body language and verbal commands, but what exactly they are reacting to is unclear. For example, how do dogs know to preferentially beg for food from attentive people, and to behave badly when people are not looking?
According to new research published in Springer’s journal Learning & Behavior, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) can predict human behavior based on specific cues, context, and learning from experience.
Monique Udell and colleagues at the University of Florida set out to understand this complex social cognition, and determine whether species and the animal’s rearing and living environment (shelter or human home) affect performance by comparing behavior in pet domestic dogs, shelter dogs, and wolves.
The researchers looked at how the three different types behaved when allowed to beg for food—either from an attentive person or someone unable to see the animal.
They found that wolves beg successfully for food from attentive humans, just like dogs, and both species rapidly improve with practice.
“Here we provide the first evidence that non-domesticated canids, grey wolves (Canis lupus), are also sensitive to human attentional state under some conditions,” write the researchers in the study abstract.
The team also found that dogs have varying sensitivity to different visual cues of human attention, with pet dogs reacting more to stimuli they have learned, while those with less human exposure are not very successful at begging.“These results suggest that dogs’ ability to follow human actions stems from a willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with conditioning to follow the limbs and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement,” the researchers note.
“The type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented, and previous experience are all important.”
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