Date: 20 Feb 2014

Visual Attention in Dogs and the Evolution of Non-Verbal Communication

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The common history of Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris dates back to between 11,000 and 32,000 years ago, when some wolves (Canis lupus) started living closely with humans. Although we cannot reach back into the past to measure the relative roles of wolves and humans in the ensuing domestication process, it was perhaps the first involving humans and another animal species. Yet its consequences for both species’ history are not completely understood. One of the puzzling aspects yet to be understood about the human–dog dyad is how dogs so readily engage in communication in the context of a social interactions with humans. To be sensitive to the meaning of human speech and gestures, dogs need to attend to various visual and vocal cues, in order to reconstruct the messages from patterns of human behavior that remain stable over time, while also generalizing to unfamiliar, novel contexts. This chapter will discuss this topic in light of some of the recent findings about dogs’ perceptual capacities for social cues. We describe some of the new technologies that are being used to better describe these perceptual processes, and present the results of a preliminary experiment using a portable eye-tracking system to gather data about dogs’ visual attention in a social interaction with humans, ending with a discussion of the possible cognitive mechanisms underlying dogs’ use of human social cues.