London: A study has found how dogs think and learn about human behaviour, and how they respond to their body language, verbal commands, and to attention states. According to Monique Udell and her team, from the University of Florida in the US, the study suggests it is all down to a combination of specific cues, context and previous experience.
Udell and team carried out two experiments comparing the performance of domestic dogs, shelter dogs and wolves given the opportunity to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. They wanted to know whether the rearing and living environment of the animal (shelter or human home), or the species itself (dog or wolf), had the greater impact on the animal's performance.
They showed, for the first time that wolves, like domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. This demonstrates that both species - domesticated and non-domesticated - have the capacity to behave in accordance with a human's attention state. In addition, both wolves and pet dogs were able to rapidly improve their performance with practice.
The authors also found that dogs were not sensitive to all visual cues of a human's attention in the same way. In particular, dogs from a home environment rather than a shelter were more sensitive to stimuli predicting attentive humans. Those dogs with less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging task.
"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 said. "The type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented, and previous experience are all important," they added. The findings have been published online in Springer's journal Learning and Behaviour.