You can’t see, when I do: A study on social attention in guide dogs

Alessandra Alterisio, Anna Scandurra, Carla Eatherington, Lieta Marinelli Biagio D’Aniello, Paolo Mongillo, (2019) Applied Animals Behaviour Science, 218:104824


This study aimed at improving our understanding of the ontogenesis of dogs’ attention toward humans. To this aim, dogs’ attention towards their handler while performing a ‘Stay-in-place’ task was analyzed, in condition of increasing difficulty represented by the introduction of distractors. To highlight the role of experience in the absence of deliberate training to look at humans, two population of dogs were tested: dogs who had just completed training as a guide dog (Trained) and dogs who had been living with their visually impaired owner for one year (Working). The main finding was that Trained dogs looked with longer looks at their handler (the trainer; mean ± SE: 2.3 ± 0.4 s) than at an unfamiliar experimenter (1.0 ± 0.2 s; P < 0.05), while Working dogs, looked at their handler (the visually impaired owner; 1.0 ± 0.2 s) with gazes as short as those paid to the experimenter (1.2 ± 0.1 s). Performance of the ‘Stay-in-place’ task was worse in Working than in Trained dogs (χ2 = 4.24 P < 0.05). The different attention pattern is likely to be explained by the relevance that the trainer acquires as a predictive source of signals, in consequence of his/her role in the entire training process; the same relevance is not acquired by visually impaired owners, who are only involved in training at a later stage. It is also possible that working dogs learn that looking at their visually impaired owner is less useful for predicting immediate events, rather than looking elsewhere. The results highlight how dogs’ attention towards humans is shaped by the specific experiences they undergo, even as adults. Our results also imply that changes in training procedures may be necessary in order to prevent decrement in attention towards the owner by guide dogs.

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