The role of domestication and experience in ‘looking back’ towards humans in an unsolvable task

Marshall-Pescini, S. et al. The role of domestication and experience in ‘looking back’ towards humans in an unsolvable task. Sci. Rep. 7, 46636; doi: 10.1038/srep46636 (2017).

The role of domestication and experience in ‘looking back’ towards humans in an unsolvable task (PDF 463.9 KB)

A key element thought to have changed during domestication is dogs’ propensity to communicate with humans, particularly their inclination to gaze at them. A classic test to measure this is the ‘unsolvable task’, where after repeated successes in obtaining a reward by object-manipulation, the animal is confronted with an unsolvable version of the task. ‘Looking back’ at humans has been considered an expression of dogs seeking help.

While it occurs more in dogs than in socialized wolves, the level of exposure to human communication also appears to play a role. We tested similarly raised adult wolves and mixed breed dogs, pet dogs and free-ranging dogs. Unlike previous studies, as well as species and levels of socialization, we included ‘persistence’ in trying to solve the task as a potential explanatory factor. Wolves were more persistent than all dog groups. Regardless of socialization or species, less persistent animals looked back sooner and longer. Free-ranging dogs, despite little exposure to dog-human communication, behaved similarly to other dogs.

Together, results suggest that basic wolf-dog differences in motivation and exploration may override differences in human-directed behaviour when animals are equally socialized, and that once the human is considered a social partner, looking behaviour occurs easily.