I recently wrote about how humans and other primates follow the gaze of others. This week I read about two more interesting findings relating to gaze-following, the first in dogs, the second in robins.
The first study used forty family-owned dogs. The researchers wanted half of these dogs to think that there was food hidden in the room they were going to be tested in, so they hid four pieces of food under pots in the room. The owner then came in with their dog and walked around the room, lifting the pots to show their dog where the food was and letting them eat it. Thus, the dogs were trained to expect to find food hidden in the room.
In the second part of the experiment, the owner came back with their dog, but this time there were no pots with food hidden. Instead, they faced the experimenter who stood between two barriers (which didn't actually have food behind them, but the dog didn't know this). The owner held the dog in place while the experimenter stared at one of the barriers for 30 seconds. Eighty percent of these dogs looked in the same direction as the researcher had been staring. What's more, the dogs actually gazed behind the barrier, as if expecting there to be food hiding there.
The other twenty dogs were tested in the same way, but without the experience of getting food first. Thus these dogs were not trained to expect to find food in the test room. This time only fifty-five percent of the dogs looked in the same direction as the experimenter, and those that did looked at the barrier rather than to what might be hidden behind it (kind of like the difference between staring at a blacked out car windshield and trying to stare through the windshield to see what might be behind it).
So it seems that dogs are very good at following human gaze, to the extent that if they think food might be hidden behind or in something they will actually stare through the object in question, leaving absolutely no ambiguity as to what they want.
First dog: Phoebe Schwartz
Second dog: João Paulo Corrêa de Carvalho
MET, A., MIKLÓSI, Á. & LAKATOS, G. (2014) Gaze-following behind barriers in domestic dogs. Animal Cognition, online first. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-014-0754-z