A new study published by a PhD student on open access journal ‘Plos One’ examines our canines’ communications with humans.
“The ability of canines to cooperate with us might be the result of selection pressures during domestication,” ponders study author Patrizia Piotti, PhD student at the Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology within the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth. “Dogs produce signals to direct the attention of humans; a behaviour often referred to as ‘showing’ behaviour. This ‘showing’ behaviour in dogs is thought to be something dogs use intentionally. However, there is currently no evidence that dogs communicate helpfully, i.e. to inform an ignorant human about a target that is of interest to the human, but not to the dog.”
Ms Piotti is studying whether dogs communicate with a ‘helpful motive’, and says the subject is particularly interesting because it might suggest that dogs understand the human's goals and our need for information.
“In a study, we assessed whether dogs would abandon an object that they find interesting in favour of an object useful for their human partner; a random ‘novel distractor’, or an empty container. Results showed that it was mainly self-interest that was driving the dogs' behaviour, but that to some extent, they took the humans interest into account,” she explains.
In a second study, the human partner interacted with the dog using vocal communication in half of the trials, remaining silent in the other half. Dogs from both experimental groups established joint attention with the human, however, the human's vocal communication and the presence of the object relevant to the human increased the persistency of ‘showing’, supporting the hypothesis that the dogs understood the objects' relevance to the human.
More studies are surely underway, and it is certainly interesting to examine dogs’ motives when it comes to human interaction. “The dogs might have indicated the location of the hidden object because they recognised it as the target of the human's search, e.g. took the human’s interest into account,” concludes Ms Piotti.
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