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MADE YOU LOOK

living    |    2017-03-20 10:22:26

Gaze following is instinctual for many animals—including humans, chimps, goats, dolphins, and even the red-footed tortoise—because it alerts animals to everything from immediate threats to "a particularly tasty berry bush," says Lisa Wallis, a doctoral student at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria.

Dogs were previously thought to follow human gazes only when food or toys were involved. Now, a new study suggests dogs also follow human gazes into blank space—but only if they're untrained. (See "5 Amazing Stories of Devoted Dogs.")

"We know they should be able to do it," says Wallis, leader of the research published in August in the journal Animal Behaviour, but training was the "missing piece of the puzzle."

In recent experiments, Wallis and her colleagues recruited 145 pet border collies with a range of training levels and ages. The researchers wanted to see if age, habituation, or training influenced the dog's tendency to follow a human's gaze.

Wallis then observed the dogs' reactions as she gazed toward a door. Surprisingly, only the untrained border collies followed her gaze—the trained animals ignored it. That may be because trained dogs learn to focus on a person's face, and not where the person is looking.  

When Wallis and colleagues spent just five minutes teaching the untrained dogs to look at her face, they began ignoring the instinct to follow her gaze.

Even more surprising is that the untrained dogs often glanced back and forth between her and the door, baffled at what she was looking at. The behavior, only seen before in humans and chimps, is called "check backs" or "double looking," she said. (Read about war dogs in National Geographic magazine.)

"It's a lesson for us all that we should always examine whether training has an effect in these types of studies," says Wallis.