What It Means When Your Dog Looks at You

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Every dog owner is familiar with the mysterious canine gaze—that specific way dogs look at humans when they’re trying to communicate something. Are they hungry? Confused? Mildly reproachful? For years, the canine gaze has preoccupied not only dog owners trying to figure out if their beloved mutt needs to go for a walk, but scientists interested in studying canine communication

In 2003, Adam Miklosi of Eotvos Lorand University published a paper on the differences between the body language of wolves and dogs, describing an experiment in which dogs and wolves raised by humans were presented with a container of food which could not be opened. When they found they couldn’t reach the food, dogs quickly looked back at their human observers, while wolves persisted in trying to open the container. Dr. Miklosi argued that this meant dogs were genetically predisposed to look to humans for help. Wolves, meanwhile, lacked the same kind of social gene, explaining why they were less likely to seek human assistance. 

A more recent study by Monique Udell of Oregon State University, however, revealed slightly different insights about the way dogs look at humans. Dr. Udell gave dogs and wolves the same challenge, but with one major difference—the container of food was difficult, but not impossible, to open. Theoretically, by working at the puzzle, both dogs and wolves would be able to open the box and get to the treat. But, again, while wolves worked at the problem, the dogs quickly gave up, looking back at their humans. 

Once again, this seems simply to imply that dogs are genetically predisposed to use eye contact to ask humans for help. However, Udell also found that, while adult dogs gave up on the box, an eight-week-old puppy was able to solve the problem. This implies that the canine gaze may actually be a product of nurture as much as nature—that is, older dogs have learned not to try to solve certain kinds of problems, either because they expect their human companions to help them, or because the inability to access food or a toy often means they’re not allowed to have it. As The New York Times notes, “Even the most indulgent dog owner might well want to discourage a pet’s initiative and determination to open closed food containers.”

Udell’s findings imply that, to some degree, the way that dogs look at us may be inherited as much from interactions with humans as from genetics. That is, it seems that dogs do have a stronger genetic predisposition towards inter-species sociality than wolves. However, the specific way they look to humans—either for help or permission—is learned, which explains why a socially unconditioned puppy was better at problem solving than an adult dog.

[h/t The New York Times]