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Look Into My Eyes...

Look Into My Eyes...

Story at-a-glance -

  • You might think your dog has mind-reading skills, but what she’s actually doing is tracking your eye movements, factoring in the tone of your voice, and gleaning all kinds of information from those signals – including your intent.
  • In the first study to use eye-tracking techniques to observe the social interaction of dogs with people, researchers have concluded dogs are tuned into human communication in a manner similar to what is seen in six month old infants.
  • Dog social skills can develop to the level of a two year-old child’s. The way your dog’s brain processes information is different than a human child’s, but the result is the same. Social interaction and communication strengthens the bond you share with your pet.

By Dr. Becker

If you often think your canine companion is reading your mind, he might be, in a manner of speaking.

It's in the Eyes

Research seems to prove dogs track human eye movements, and eye movements are linked with intent – thus your pet's slightly spooky ability to know what you're thinking.

A study published recently in Current Biology likens this ability in dogs to a similar one shown by human babies.

"Dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to six-month-old human infants," study co-author Jozsef Topal told Discovery News.

"They read our intention to communicate in a preverbal, infant-like manner."

For the study, 16 dogs were shown videos of a person turning toward one of two identical objects.

In one video, the person looks directly at the dog and says in a lively voice, "Hi dog!"

In the other video, the person avoided eye contact and said 'Hi dog,' in a low voice.

An eye tracker was used to capture the dogs' reactions, and researchers concluded from the data collected that dogs were more likely to look at the object in the video featuring the more communicative person.

Dogs Respond to "Communicative Intent"

This may sound like a ho-hum experiment to those of you who are well aware your dog is tuned into you, but it's actually the first study to use eye-tracking techniques to observe how dogs interact with people.

The study brought out an additional aspect of dogs' attentiveness to humans by demonstrating that when a dog's gaze follows a human, it's not simply a reflex. It's linked to the human's 'communicative intent.'

Canine social skills can grow to the equivalent of a two year-old human. Lack of verbal ability to some extent prevents further development.

Even though your dog's brain doesn't process information the same way a human child's does, her ability to interact with you at this level helps strengthen the human-dog bond you share. And when you think about the biological differences between humans and canines, the ability to communicate back and forth is quite remarkable.

Study co-author Topal explains that dogs' ability to socialize developed over thousands of years of domestication. They have adapted their innate canine capabilities to the demands of living so closely with humans.

Housecats and Horses May Also Read Human Intent

Topal believes both horses and housecats may share a similar aptitude for reading human intent because they also live in close contact with us. But he believes dogs are likely the most perceptive of all:

"Dogs are in a special way tuned in to humans. They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors."

Topal also believes dogs, with their keen sense of smell and hearing, can even be better at times than adults at reading a person's intent. "They can easily learn to associate even unconscious behavioral cues of their owner with particular consequences," he said. "This way, a dog can acquire an ability to anticipate the owner's behavior, and this may give a false impression of mind-reading."