Dogs have learned to look for the looks we make for toddlers
Humans likely started domesticating dogs 13- to 15-thousand years ago. While these early companions may have initially interacted with us as scavengers or hunting partners, much of our relationship and psychology with modern dogs seems to be modeled more on our children. When you gaze into the eyes of the significant canine in your life, both of your brains react with the same neurotransmitters in play when people bond with their babies. Now another parental pattern has been proven, wherein dogs look to their owners for guidance on how to handle unclear situations.
In humans, this pattern actually extends beyond parents and children, but it’s more obvious when a toddler finds themselves in an unusual situation. If they’re not familiar with something like a potentially surmountable obstacle, they’ll often look to their mom or dad for cues about how they should treat this novel encounter. If the parent looks worried, the child will usually pull back or hold still. If the parent smiles, the child will proceed to interact with whatever the item or scenario was, having understood that smile as an “all clear!” signal.
From kids to canines
While the above isn’t shocking, it is interesting how directly it seems to have been translated to dogs. Dogs were put in a room with their owners and a table fan, decorated with green ribbons to act as streamers. The fan didn’t need to an actual threat, but it was enough to make the dogs consider it for a moment.
Almost every dog followed the pattern set out by toddlers. They looked to their owners immediately, and then followed the cues set out for them. Negative facial expressions, turned backs or harsh words would all tell the dog that the fan was trouble, and to keep its distance. More positive or accepting body language would then do the opposite, and the dogs would approach or touch the streamers.
The effect was strong enough that researchers kept dogs that had had negative cues after the study was done to try to undo the original instructions. Extra treats and enthusiastic behavior was displayed to make sure no dogs went home with an overly pessimistic idea about fans they might see later on.
Source: Dogs Look to People to Figure Out How to Respond to the Crazy Green Monster by Julie Hecht, Dog Spies