Integration into human societies requires dogs to express adaptable social attitudes, involving high levels of attention to other individuals. In the present study, we developed a new behavioural test, to characterize selective attention towards humans. In the task, the dogs were exposed to the owner and an unfamiliar person, repeatedly entering the experimental room and leaving through different doors; at the end of the sequence the dogs were allowed to approach the doors. Attention was measured as the average length of gaze bouts and as the overall duration of visual orientation towards the different targets. Dogs gave preferential attention to the owner, who received longer gaze bouts and greater overall attention than the stranger. The preference was confirmed by the significant proportion of dogs that directed attention to the owner’s door at the end of the task. A modified version of the task was employed to measure dogs’ attention when the person’s head was not visible. This condition caused a decrease in attention parameters towards the owner. To determine the effects of old age on attention, the two tasks were then administered to dogs aged 7 years and older. Compared to adults, aged dogs showed lower owner-directed attention when the owner was not in sight and were more likely not to move at the end of the task. The results provide the first evidence that dogs’ interspecific attention depends on the nature of the dog–human relationship, on the availability of some distinctive features of the social stimulus and on the age of the dog.
behavioural test, Canis familiaris, dog, dog ageing, dog–human relationship, social attention
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