Is your body language at the root of your dog’s bad behaviour? A new study published by the online journal Learning and Behavior reveals that training doesn’t stop when we call the session over or put the clicker away: we are constantly giving off subtle non-verbal cues that our dogs pick up on. Research conducted at the University of Florida proved that eye contact was a key signal for domesticated dogs, shelter dogs, and wolves.
“The question was, are dogs and wolves responsive to a human’s attentional state?” said Monique Udell, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. “Do they have a feeling of whether we can see them or not? Turning your back—that’s a cue all the animals were sensitive to.”
But when the testers held books, it was only the domesticated dogs who avoided those reading. Familiar with the inattention reading signals, they only sought treats from the testers looking at them, while wolves and shelter dogs were indifferent to the cue and just as likely to approach those reading as not, having never experienced book reading behaviour before. A bucket element was added in as well, and, interestingly, all the animals were as likely to seek treats from the person with the bucket over her head as the person holding the bucket. Since it’s relatively abnormal for humans to walk around with buckets on their heads, they hadn’t learned how to read that cue.
“Dogs don’t have to read our minds. Dogs read our behaviour,” said Dr. Udell. “That might be why dogs are so successful in human homes. They are watching us. They are quick learners, they can figure out when you are going to give them the next treat or whether you are going to give them a bath. Whether we know it or not, we are training them.”