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Speaking a million words in a single gaze

Read time: 5 mins
11 Oct 2019
Speaking a million words in a single gaze

"An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language," said Martin Buber, an Austrian philosopher. This saying is especially true of dogs, which have evolved an incredible gaze, so powerful that it can melt hearts. Studies on gazing behaviour is an evolving area of research in animal behaviour, and where better to start than with dogs, considered man's (and woman's) best friend! In a recent study, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata (IISER Kolkata), and Oregon State University, USA, have observed how domestic dogs use and respond to human gaze.

"Gazing is considered as one of the strongest communicative means in animals including humans," says Mr Debottam Bhattacharjee from IISER Kolkata, who is an author of the study.

The ability to show or follow gaze, he says, shows an animal's understanding of its immediate environment.

"It can tell us a lot about the evolution of communication in animals and of course, in humans," he adds.

The study, funded partially by the Department of Science and Technology, was published in the journal Animal Cognition

Although previous studies have explored gazing behaviour in dogs, most of them have focused on pet dogs, who have lived all their lives with humans. Free-ranging dogs, or 'street dogs' as we know them in India, are different. Compared to pet dogs, these dogs have limited and nuanced interactions with humans since they are not 'owned' by any. “Street dogs are a lot more calm in their interaction with people. Consequently, they also seem to pay a lot more intentional attention to people—they look out for friendly people or cues on danger, and use our help even to cross streets,” says Ms Sindhoor Pangal, a canine behaviourist, myotherapist and Director at BHARCS. Studying the behaviour of free-ranging dogs, in comparison with pet dogs, often provide insights into dog-human interactions that have naturally evolved.

"Different subpopulations of dogs have striking differences in their socialisation and life experiences. Variations in their living environment can have significant impacts on any behaviour, and gaze is no exception," explains Mr Bhattacharjee.

The current study is the first-of-its-kind to examine gazing behaviour in free-ranging dogs and compare them with that of pet and shelter dogs.

"The results are astonishing and provide us insights regarding their understanding of human behaviour," he adds.

The researchers conducted their experiments on 72 dogs—24 pet dogs and 24 shelter dogs from the US, and 24 free-ranging dogs from Kolkata. They gave these dogs a small piece of chicken every 10 seconds for 50 seconds, followed immediately by a two-minute 'testing condition'. During the testing condition, the experimenter stopped providing food and did one of three things—turned their back on the dog, gazed directly at the dog, or left the testing area. The food container, however, was out of reach for the dogs so that they could only gaze at it, showing their interest. These experiments were video recorded and later analysed to measure how long the dogs stared at the food and the experimenter. The time they spent close to and away from the experimenter was also noted.

The results showed that when the experimenter faced the dogs, in what was called the 'attentive state', pet dogs gazed at her for the longest time. They also stood close to the experimenter for a long time. Shelter dogs too showed similar behaviour. However, free-ranging dogs spent the least amount gazing back at the human in this attentive state. In the 'inattentive state', where the human looked away from the dogs, pet dogs and shelter dogs showed similar responses, but free-ranging dogs differed in their responses like earlier. They seemed to be more comfortable at gazing at the food container when the experimenter walked away.

In comparison to pet dogs and shelter dogs, who seemed to be comfortable getting close to unfamiliar humans, free-ranging dogs seemed wary. The researchers point out this behaviour to the fact that these dogs may have understood humans to be potentially harmful—a fact reiterated by studies. An earlier study by Prof Anindita Bhadra and her students at IISER Kolkata have shown that free-ranging dogs trust humans who show them affection and not those who merely give them food.  “Taking these two together, it makes sense that the free-ranging dogs were gazing at the food when the humans looked away and were wary when the humans paid attention to them,” remarks Prof Bhadra, who led the part of the study on the free-ranging dogs in Kolkata.

"We had no earlier data on free-ranging dogs, and this study shows us the smartness of these dogs. They could use the attentional states of humans to modulate their gaze, clearly suggesting a role of life experience and learning. Such adaptation is highly needed for animals living close to humans," explains Mr Bhattacharjee.

The findings show that free-ranging dogs understand human intentions pretty well, and understanding their behaviour can help avoid any unprecedented conflict. Like humans, dogs too have differences in personalities, and their previous encounters with humans decide if these dogs are friendly towards humans, shy or fearful. The results also help in 'training' these dogs for particular purposes, considering their smartness. 

How do such studies fit into the bigger picture of understanding dog behaviour, or ethology as it is scientifically called?

“With more research on cognitive ethology of free-ranging dogs and captive dogs, we are gaining a better understanding of these dogs. The training world is gradually paying more attention,” argues Ms Pangal.

Often, natural behaviour in the dog world, like chewing, is misunderstood as being destructive and labelled ‘abnormal’ because of the lack of our understanding.

“Moreover, animal health care professionals can also benefit from looking at the so-called ‘abnormal behaviours’. Often, in animals, abnormal behaviours are a result of hidden health issues. It helps to catch diseases sooner, at their subclinical phase and help our companion animals better,” she adds.

Moving forward, for Mr Bhattacharjee, an exciting step for this research is to identify the specific factors causing differences in gazing behaviour using more comparative studies like this.

Editor's note:  The article has been modified to accurately reflect one of the author’s contribution to the study