We know dogs care about people who pay attention to them, and we know that dogs in general enjoy human attention. Still, it’s fascinating to learn that human observation has a strong influence on one of their species-specific behaviors – in this case, the game.
Predictably, there is great interest in a new study showing that dogs play more when their owners are paying attention to them. There’s always great interest in everything dog playing, not least because it’s fun to watch.
The study, reported in Animal Cognition magazine, “Owner Attention Facilitates Social Play in Dog-Dog Dyads (Canis lupus familiaris): Evidence of Interspecific Audience Effect” is the first to examine an audience’s impact on rated the dog game directly.
It has already been shown that dogs are affected by human attention and the attention of play partners for dogs in other contexts. A 2007 study showed that most game played in familiar environments when a human was also present, and a 2014 study found that wolves and wolfhound hybrids played more when humans were present. However, these studies did not control human attention; They only took into account human presence.
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In the current study, the researchers examined the effects of human attention and human presence on playing with dogs. People paid attention to their dogs in three ways: making eye contact with them, petting them, and praising them with an optimistic tone.
For the study, pairs of dogs were recorded on video in their own four walls three times for five minutes in each of the following three situations: The owner was (1) in another room (absent), (2) in the room with the dogs, however fully focused on a book or laptop and no eye contact or social overtures (present but inattentive) or (3) in the room with the dogs making eye contact, as well as verbal praise and petting (present and attentive).
The videos were then analyzed to determine the amount of time the dogs were engaged in social play behavior. These data showed that they played the most when their owners were present and attentive.
Although in the present and attentive state the owners were friendly with the dogs, they in no way encouraged play. They did not offer toys, attempt to wrestle or chase the dogs, or provide any other play-related advice. When a social game was taking place, the attentive owners would continue to offer eye contact and verbal praise, but would not pet or otherwise have physical contact with the dog.
It is unexpected and therefore strange that dogs should be able to play at all times, but more so when their owners are watching them. The authors suggest a number of possible explanations for the increase in the game of attentive owners:
• Attention can be reinforcement, which means that the game is reinforced by the owner’s attention.
• The game may be due to increased physiological arousal caused by the owner’s attention.
• The game may have been augmented by other valuable offerings in the past – the owner may have joined the game regularly, took her outside, or took her for a walk.
• Careful owners can make sure the dogs feel safe and comfortable. These are the necessary conditions for playing. While animals can playfully deepen their relationship, there are risks involved, including creating tension that can lead to aggression. Perhaps an observant person makes this less likely so that a game is more likely to take place.
• Gambling could be an attempt to compete for the owner’s attention.
• It is possible that the presence of an attentive owner enhances the dogs’ positive feelings and potentially increases oxytocin levels, which generally results in an overall more positive emotional state.
Future studies could examine how owner attention makes gaming easier. Additional studies could also find out which element or combination of elements of human attention – eye contact, praise, physical contact – is most relevant to promoting dog play.
In the meantime, we can watch our dogs play and praise them as we know we are part of the reason it happens in the first place.