One of my earliest 'grownup' gifts was the Dawn of the Dead box set, so I was a happy camper to find myself on recent flights to and from San Francisco sitting next to people watching World War Z. Watching the movie over someone’s shoulder without the suspenseful music helped me notice a few things I hadn’t seen the first time around (when poking out from behind my hands in the movie theater).
(spoiler alert ahead)
Gerry Lane (Pit) and the soldier (Kertesz) make it onto a plane departing Israel just in the nick of time. It’s one of the first moments of calm, and the passengers are relieved to be airborne and away from the landlocked zombies who can’t fly (or can they?).
The camera cuts to a dog. A wee chihuahua trots down the aisle, tail high, barking. The dog stops to bark at a closed door, turns to look at a stewardess and then looks back to the closed door. The stewardess understands, as you would, that the dog is saying, in not so many words, “Hey lady. You’ve got opposable thumbs. Use them to open this door.”
While you might have interpreted this scene as, “Noooooo! There is definitely a zombie behind that door! No! That plane is going down,” scientists describe this as a great example of ‘gaze alternation’ — a way of communicating with another by “attracting and directing the audience’s attention toward a specific object or location.” (Prato-Previde & Marshall-Pescini, 2014). Many studies investigate when and how dogs use this behavior.
Studies find that when dogs confront something out of reach that they would like very much, please — like a ball that has God Forbid rolled under the couch — many dogs show gaze alternation to direct a person’s attention to the object of interest. It’s like dogs are pointing with their eyes and body positioning. Gaze alternation, lucky you, is often accompanied by lots and lots of barking.
World War Z uses this well-known behavior to move the plot forward. But the gaze alternation presented in World War Z has some flaws. Not just because there are no zombies in the real world (I hope) but because dogs tend to show gaze alternation to request something that they want for themselves, not to inform nearby humans of something that the humans might want to know about. This is a subtle but meaningful distinction. One study found that dogs more readily show gaze alternation towards an object that they wanted, not towards something that a person wanted but couldn’t find.
You might argue that the dog wanted the zombie, but unlike a dog waiting for a ball, the dog in World War Z trots off before the zombie is released, suggesting that the dog did not want the zombie for himself. Instead, the movie uses the dog’s gaze to inform, which is not what we often see in the real world.
Kaminski J., Neumann M., Bräuer J., Call J. & Tomasello M. (2011). Dogs, Canis familiaris, communicate with humans to request but not to inform, Animal Behaviour, 82 (4) 651-658. DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.06.015
Miklósi A., Polgárdi R., Topál J. & Csányi V. (2000). Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: an experimental analysis of "showing" behaviour in the dog, Animal Cognition, 3 (3) 159-166. DOI: 10.1007/s100710000072
Prato-Previde E. & Marshall-Pescini S. (2014). Social Looking in the Domestic Dog. in Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris. ed Alexandra Horowitz 101-131. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-53994-7_5