Canine “looking back” behavior the result of social adaptation

Do your canine patients look to you, or their owners, for direction? It could be because dogs have been trained to solicit that direction rather than act independently, a new study suggests.

The study, published September 16 in Biology Letters by Oregon State University, concluded that social sensitivity plays a key role in a dog’s willingness to problem solve.

In the study, pet dogs, animal shelter dogs, and wolves were given three opportunities to open a solvable puzzle box in three situations: with a neutral human caretaker, when encouraged by a caretaker, and when alone.

The result? Wolves had an 80% success rate in solving the puzzle. However, pet dogs and animal shelter dogs came in at a low 5% success rate.

“People tend to think that dogs are clever because they recognize when a problem is unsolvable, whereas wolves don’t seem to understand this,” Monique A. R. Udell, PhD, an animal behaviorist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, and the study’s author, told Science Magazine. Instead, dogs may be using different strategies for problem solving.

“The pet dogs seem to err on the side of caution, even though solving the problem independently would be fine, and their owner is telling them that it’s okay,” Udell told Science Magazine. “They prefer a 'social cognitive solution'—that is, they want their owner to help them open the box.”

Udell suspects that waiting for direction—even to solve a solvable problem—is an adaptive behavior that stems from teaching dogs not to act until they get direction from their owners. Otherwise, there may be consequences.  

Photo credit: © iStock/sssss1gmel

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