Training for eye contact modulates gaze following in dogs.
Following human gaze in dogs and human infants can be considered a socially facilitated orientation response, which in object choice tasks is modulated by human-given ostensive cues. Despite their similarities to human infants, and extensive skills in reading human cues in foraging contexts, no evidence that dogs follow gaze into distant space has been found. We re-examined this question, and additionally whether dogs' propensity to follow gaze was affected by age and/or training to pay attention to humans. We tested a cross-sectional sample of 145 border collies aged 6 months to 14 years with different amounts of training over their lives. The dogs' gaze-following response in test and control conditions before and after training for initiating eye contact with the experimenter was compared with that of a second group of 13 border collies trained to touch a ball with their paw. Our results provide the first evidence that dogs can follow human gaze into distant space. Although we found no age effect on gaze following, the youngest and oldest age groups were more distractible, which resulted in a higher number of looks in the test and control conditions. Extensive lifelong formal training as well as short-term training for eye contact decreased dogs' tendency to follow gaze and increased their duration of gaze to the face. The reduction in gaze following after training for eye contact cannot be explained by fatigue or short-term habituation, as in the second group gaze following increased after a different training of the same length. Training for eye contact created a competing tendency to fixate the face, which prevented the dogs from following the directional cues. We conclude that following human gaze into distant space in dogs is modulated by training, which may explain why dogs perform poorly in comparison to other species in this task.