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Eye-contact a common thread between dogs and babies

posted 29 Jan 2012, 16:16 by Mpelembe   [ updated 29 Jan 2012, 16:20 ]

A study by Hungarian researchers claims that dog-owners can get closer to their pets by looking directly at them while giving them commands. The scientists say that man's best friend picks up on human communication in the same way as human babies and that more can be done by dog-owners to cultivate a better relationship with their canine companions.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY  (REUTERS) -Training dogs based at the Ethology Department of the ELTE University in Budapest are taking part in ground-breaking research as scientists work to prove that the minds of dogs show similar characteristics to those of small babies.
According to the latest findings of Hungarian dog ethologists published in a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 5, dogs pick up not only on the words human say but also on their intent to communicate with them.

The findings might help to explain why so
many people treat their furry friends like their children; dogs' receptivity to human communication is surprisingly similar to the receptivity of very young children, the researchers say.

The team presented dogs with video recordings of a person turning toward one of two identical plastic pots while an eye tracker captured information on the dogs' reactions. In one situation, the person first looked straight at the dog, addressing it in a high-pitched voice with "Hi dog!" In the second condition, the person gave only a low-pitched "Hi dog" while avoiding eye contact.

The data show that the dogs were more likely to follow along and look at the pot when the person first expressed an intention to communicate. Their findings reveal that that dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to human infants, researchers say.

It is also the first study to use eye-tracking techniques to study dogs' social skills.

"We have two main results in this study. The first is that this eye tracking method is very effective to investigate dogs' communicative skills and looking behaviour like in infants. And the second one is that dogs are sensitive to human communicative signals as six and eight months of children. And this is the first time that it has been proved," experiment leader, PhD student Anna Gergely, said.

The team believe their findings will help dog owners to improve their interaction with their pets. Previously dogs were only thought to communicate on an unconscious level and Topal and his team hope the knowledge that dogs react better to acting on commands while being looked at directly should persuade owners to increase their eye contact with their canines.

ELTE's Ethology Department has been at the forefront of the world's leading research into how dogs communicate. In fact, dog ethology itself was founded in this department in 1994.

Some years ago ELTE's ethologists analysed dog barks and differentiated 14 different types. Researchers also proved that dogs respond differently to different growls and understand something of their context.

Head researcher Jozsef Topal says their new research complements the department's earlier work.

"This kind of achievement fits well into the series of research in which we have proved several times that in many ways dogs are showing similar abilities to the minds of children aged between six months and two years. We call these functional analogies. We emphasise, however, that we do not think that the same cognitive processes are going on in the minds of the dogs but this is an evolutionary parallel," he said.

During domestication dogs became 'artificial animals' that simulated human mind behaviour because they faced the same evolutionary challenges while they learnt to fit into a complicated social system to survive, he added.

"This data is further proof that there is a kind of parallel between dogs and babies. To put it with a little exaggeration: dogs are babies in wolf's skin - although they look like predators and their anatomy is that of wolves but the way their mind works is more similar to a small baby than a predatory animal," Topal said.