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A look into the minds of our canine companions by Allison Roth

One of the skills I am trying to get my students to learn is to take a peer-reviewed manuscript and translating it into a popular style writing. Here Allison Roth does a great job.

A look into the minds of our canine companions

By: Allison M. Roth

Dogs have been an integral part of human life for many years. They provide unconditional love, and many humans have come to see these creatures as more than just pets. It is virtually impossible to walk down a street in my upper west side neighborhood without having a four legged creature with a hyperactive tail scamper up to me. This past week I have had the enormous pleasure of dog-sitting an adorable little pup named Mitzi, and I must admit that I am quite taken with her. She sleeps in my arms every night and is always just a few steps behind me during the day. Despite the prevalence of dogs in our society, relatively little scientific work has been done on the species. However, there are a few interesting articles out there, and there is one in particular that I would like to share.

Dog owners know that there is almost nothing that can beat taking one’s dog to the dog park to play a game of fetch or tug or war. It is always fun to watch dogs of all sizes and shapes wrestle with each other and make new friends. However, have you ever wondered why dogs choose to play with certain dogs but not others? Nicola J. Rooney and John W. S. Bradshaw shine some light on this question in their article “Social cognition in the domestic dog: behaviour of spectators towards participants in interspecific games”. In this paper, Rooney and Bradshaw write about a set of experiments that they conducted in which dogs (i.e. spectator dogs) watched other dogs (i.e. demonstrator dogs) play games of tug of war with a human.

In the first of these experiments, the spectator dogs watched tug of war games where either 1) the human won or 2) the demonstrator dog won. In both treatments, the human performed actions such as play bows and playful vocalizations to let the spectator dog know that the tug of war game was all in good fun. This is what Rooney and Bradshaw found:

 

*After watching games where the human won:

– The spectator dogs were more likely to approach the human before approaching the other dog.

– The spectator dogs approached the human more quickly when she won than when she

didn’t.

 

*After watching games where the demonstrator dog won:

-The spectator dogs were equally likely to approach the human and the demonstrator dog.

– The spectator dogs approached the demonstrator dog more quickly when it won than when it didn’t.

 

Rooney and Bradshaw suggest that this happened because the spectator dogs perceived the winners of the tug of war games to be better playmates regardless of whether they were humans or canines.

 

Rooney and Bradshaw then repeated the experiment but did not have the human perform play signals to indicate that the tug of war game was a friendly interaction. They found that the spectator dogs approached both the human and the demonstrator dog more slowly than they did when the play signals were given. Rooney and Bradshaw suggest that this happened because the spectator dogs viewed the new set of tug of war matches as being competitions instead of friendly games since play signals were not performed. Furthermore, Rooney and Bradshaw suggest that the spectator dogs regarded participants in the friendly games as being better playmates than those involved in contests.

So the next time you are at the dog park, remember that games are just games. Letting your dog win a few games might help him or her impress his or her peers. Additionally, performing play signals when romping around with your dog might make him or her more appealing to the other dogs, and it might just give you a better shot at making some new furry friends as well!

 

Fun fact: When animals gather information by observing signaling interactions between other individuals it is called “eavesdropping” in the world of animal behavior. Here, the spectator dogs eavesdropped on the tug of war games that occurred between demonstrator dogs and humans to see who would make good playmates.

 

References:

Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. (2006). Social cognition in the domestic dog: behaviour of spectators towards participants in interspecific games. Animal Behaviour, 72(2), 343-352.

 

 

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