Canine Connection: Study Explores How Dogs Think and Learn About Human Behavior.

New research suggests that the way our canine companions respond to the level of our attentiveness is linked to a combination of specific cues, context, and previous experience.

Claudia Bensimoun

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Photos courtesy of Dr. Monica Udell.


Udell and her team carried out two experiments and compared the performance of domestic dogs, shelter dogs, and wolves given the opportunity to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. The researchers wanted to find out whether the rearing and living environments of the animal, whether a shelter or human home, or the species itself (dog or wolf), had the greater impact on the animal’s performance.

One of the most interesting findings was that wolves, like domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. Both species (domesticated and non-domesticated) have the capacity to behave in accordance with a human’s attentional state. The study also found that both wolves and domesticated dogs were able to rapidly improve their performance with practice and when rewarded with treats, attention, and other positive reinforcers.

The researchers also found that all dogs were not sensitive to visual cues of a human’s attention in the same way. Dogs from the same home environment were more sensitive to visual stimuli from attentive humans, whereas dogs from a shelter were less sensitive to the same visual stimuli from attentive humans. Dogs with less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging test.





                Photos courtesy of Dr. Monica Udell.



According to Udell and her team, “These results suggest that a dogs’ ability to follow human actions stems from a willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with conditioning to follow the limbs and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement. The type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented, and previous experience are all important.”

Udell’s findings showed that our canine companions were more likely to beg for food from a person looking at them, as opposed to someone with their back turned or reading a book. Human- socialized wolves, however, did not beg from people that had their backs turned, but were just as likely to beg from a person that was reading a book, as someone looking right at them. Dogs living in a shelter had the worst performance outcomes. This study demonstrates that domestication is not essential for performance under all conditions and that our canine companions are sensitive to human attentional states in many different situations.


Dogs were likely the first animals to become domesticated and to have shared a close bond with humans over thousands of years. Therefore,the domesticated dog’s behavior has come under much scientific scrutiny. Most of the research by Dr. Udell and her team has been inspired by research in human cognitive psychology and suggests that our canine companions are in so many ways more human-like than any other animal species, including nonhuman primates. Behavior analysts add their expertise to the study of all canine behavior. This includes adding objective analyses of all experimental data and effectively integrating all new knowledge into the applied work with dogs.


Department of Biology

Can Dogs Read Our Minds?

Photos courtesy of Dr. Monica Udell.

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