A Dog's Life

Young puppies are always appealing. We pick them up and look them in the eye and feel that, of course, they should come home with us. If it’s close to Christmas, then it’s very difficult to say no and move on, especially if we’re visiting an animal shelter.

All dogs seem to be able to stare at us so that we have to talk to them.  Although looking sad, they may be scheming how to manipulate us into giving them an early dinner or going for an extra walk. The question is: are they born with that ability or do they learn how to recognize a ‘soft touch’?

Passalacqua et al tackled this one head on with three different breed groups of dog (1). The three types were genetically different so that inherited traits would also be different. They chose herding/hunting dogs like collies, primitive dogs like ridgebacks, and molossoid dogs like mastiffs and boxers.

They ran through a series of manipulative experiments for the dogs to solve to get food and threw in one that was unsolvable. A human was also in the room and the pleading looks for help, if any, were recorded. They started with 2 month old puppies, then ones at 4½ months old, and finally, full grown dogs.

At 2 months old none of the dogs looked at their human for guidance. At 4½ months, the hunting/herding group was starting to ask their human to get off their butt and help. By the time they were full grown, this group were clearly more demanding of equality of effort in getting the job done, after all they had treats owing.

The report concluded that although most adult dogs keep a pretty careful watch on your face and learn to manipulate you as they grow up, they ones bred for strong cooperation, such as the herding/hunter types, are much better at it and more expectant of equal division of labor.

  1. C.Passelacqua, S.Marshall-Pescin, S.Bernard, G. Lakatos, P.Valsecchi and E.P. Previde, Animal Behaviour, In Press, (2011).

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