Dog decisions: the position of the people is the key factor

(29.08.2020) Do dogs know who to ask for help after observing an interaction between two people? “Eavesdropping” is defined as observing others and acquiring information for one’s own benefit, which is self-evident for humans. Serveral previous studies found that dogs could “eavesdrop” by observing how a human interacts with another person or dog.

However a new study led by the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna now doubts this eavesdropping hypothesis. The new research results indicate that dogs instead memorize the position of individual persons and make decisions based on this information.

New study questions the ability of dogs to draw the right information from eavesdropping

Several previous studies found that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) could eavesdrop by observing how a human interacts with another person or dog.

However, some of these studies did not consider the position of the person. It was therefore not clear whether dogs are actually eavesdropping or whether they "simply" remember the position of the individual persons.

The study from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), which has just been published, examined whether dogs derive information from observing interactions between unfamiliar people. The experiment involved 42 dogs, which participated at the "Clever Dog Lab" of the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna.

In the observation phase, the animals saw a human with a box of food asking two people to help her open it - one of these people helped and the other did not. For the subsequent test phase, there were two variants: either the helpful person changed location with the unhelpful person, or both remained in their original place.

Most of us humans would probably turn to the helpful person no matter where he or she was located, however dogs only looked at the helpful person first if the person remained on the same side as during the observation phase.

"Based on the findings of our study, the hypothesis of eavesdropping in dogs is not supported. Our results indicate that the position of people is the relevant factor for the decisions of dogs," says first author Hoi-Lam Jim from the Wolf Science Centre of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology of Vetmeduni Vienna.

Eavesdropping is a possible factor for cooperation between dogs and humans

In the present context, "eavesdropping" means the gathering of information by observing interactions with third parties. Given the dependence of dogs on humans, it would be beneficial for them to eavesdrop on human interactions in order to find a suitable partner for cooperation.

Previous studies have shown that dogs prefer a human being who acts generously or cooperatively towards another human to a human who acts selfishly or uncooperatively. However, some of these studies did not examine whether the position of the acting person had a possible influence on the test result.

By including the "location" factor in the experimental setting, the study now presented by Vetmeduni Vienna has provided further evidence that dogs do not make decisions based on eavesdropping.

The article “Do dogs eavesdrop on human interactions in a helping situation?” by Hoi-Lam Jim, Sarah Marshall-Pescini and Friederike Range was published in PLOS ONE.

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