Eye Contact Is Crucial for Referential Communication in Pet Dogs


  • Savalli Carine
  • Resende Briseida
  • Gaunet Florence


  • Vocalization
  • Acoustic signals
  • Pets and companion animals
  • Dogs
  • Eyes
  • Animal behavior
  • Sensory cues
  • Animal signaling and communication

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Dogs discriminate human direction of attention cues, such as body, gaze, head and eye orientation, in several circumstances. Eye contact particularly seems to provide information on human readiness to communicate; when there is such an ostensive cue, dogs tend to follow human communicative gestures more often. However, little is known about how such cues influence the production of communicative signals (e.g. gaze alternation and sustained gaze) in dogs. In the current study, in order to get an unreachable food, dogs needed to communicate with their owners in several conditions that differ according to the direction of owners' visual cues, namely gaze, head, eyes, and availability to make eye contact. Results provided evidence that pet dogs did not rely on details of owners' direction of visual attention. Instead, they relied on the whole combination of visual cues and especially on the owners' availability to make eye contact. Dogs increased visual communicative behaviors when they established eye contact with their owners, a different strategy compared to apes and baboons, that intensify vocalizations and gestures when human is not visually attending. The difference in strategy is possibly due to distinct status: domesticated vs wild. Results are discussed taking into account the ecological relevance of the task since pet dogs live in human environment and face similar situations on a daily basis during their lives.

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