The aim of this study was to investigate three different breed groups with regard to their human contact-seeking behaviour. Using the unsolvable problem task, we found that herding dogs gazed longer towards the owner compared to both solitary hunting breeds and ancient breeds. In addition, while herding dogs preferred their owner, the solitary hunting dogs showed most contact-seeking behaviours towards the unfamiliar experimenter.
In our study, herding dogs showed a much longer eye contact duration during UPT compared to the other breed groups, which is in line with Passalacqua et al. (2011). However, we found no difference between the ancient breed group and the solitary hunting breeds, indicating that not only relatedness to the wolf affects the eye contact-seeking behaviour as suggested by Konno et al. (2016), but also selection and function of the dog breed as suggested by Passalacqua et al. (2011). In Passalacqua et al. (2011) both herding dogs and retrieving breeds are grouped together as a hunting/herding group, which might give the impression that all hunting breeds are selected for human cooperation and show much human contact. Our solitary hunting dogs gazed only short durations towards humans during the UPT, which is also different from the hounds in Konno et al. (2016) that found similar gazing durations for all breed groups except for the ancient breeds that gazed the least. In both studies the experimenter was training the dogs in solvable tasks before the task was made unsolvable. This might increase some dogs’ contact-seeking behaviour due to the association between treats and the experimenter. In our UPT, the experimenter was not associated with either treats, the motivation test plate, or the actual test apparatus and was, therefore, a neutral stranger to the dog.
In this study, both the owner and an unfamiliar experimenter were present during the UPT, allowing the dog to choose whom to seek contact with. Since we analysed the contact-seeking behaviour towards the humans separately it was possible to study whether the dog revealed a preference. As hypothesized, we found differences in human preference between the breed groups. While the herding dogs gazed longer towards the owner and were more in proximity to the owner compared to the unfamiliar experimenter, the solitary hunting dogs preferred to be in experimenter proximity. In previous UPT studies, there is usually a preference for the owner or no obvious preference (see review Cavalli et al 2018, but note Maglieri et al. 2019). Note, however, that the preference in the solitary hunting dogs in this study refers to the proximity and physical contact to the experimenter, and not eye contact-seeking behaviour. Still, the results might indicate that solitary hunting dogs are curious towards strangers which could be a result from experience, hunting in large teams, or it could be related to personality or breed traits. Since this study is part of a larger study, the personality of these dogs has been investigated previously (Höglin et al. 2021). However, the only personality trait, where the solitary hunting dogs differed significantly from the other groups was Activity/Excitability, where herding dogs revealed the highest scores. Another possible reason for the experimenter preference in the solitary hunting dogs could be differences in the human–animal relationship as suggested by Cavalli et al. (2018) and Mendes et al. (2021). Indeed, as reported earlier in Höglin et al. (2021), the owner-reported relationship scores (assessed by MDORS) for both the subscale Dog–Owner Interaction and Perceived Emotional Closeness were lower for the solitary hunting dogs compared to both ancient dog breeds and herding dogs. In addition, the score for the subscale Perceived Cost was high for solitary hunting dogs compared to the other breed groups. Hence, in line with Topál et al. (1997), where the type of relationship was linked to the dog’s behaviour, this weaker relationship might be related to why the solitary hunting dogs seek more contact with an unfamiliar experimenter instead of their owner. However, note that ancient dog breeds and herding dogs were similar in their relationship scores but still differed in their contact-seeking behaviour in the UPT in this study. Hence, future studies should investigate this human preference further to disentangle the effect of breed group and the human–dog relationship.
In addition to breed group, the dog’s training experiences is suggested to influence the gazing behaviour, and Marshall-Pescini et al. (2016) found that dogs that are more trained gaze less towards humans during a problem-solving task compared to non-trained dogs. In our study, we did not find any differences between the two lifestyles within the herding dogs, i.e., actively competing dogs (in agility or obedience) and dogs kept as pet dogs. This could suggest limited effect of training in the herding group, but the dog’s training experience could still be important to consider when investigating contact-seeking behaviour in other breeds. Topál et al. (1997) found untrained dogs to play more with strangers, which might add to the explanation for the solitary hunting dogs’ behaviour towards the unfamiliar experimenter in our study. However, since training activities were not assessed for the ancient and solitary hunting breed group we will not speculate further on this point.
Also, one limitation of this study is that there were relatively more males in the herding group compared to the other breed groups. Even though we did not find any sex differences and, therefore, pooled the data, there might be a skewness that affects the results. However, in studies testing for possible sex differences in UPT, sex has been suggested to have little effect on the gazing behaviour (Konno et al. 2016; Passalacqua et al. 2011; Persson et al. 2015; Sommese et al. 2019; Topál et al. 1997) but note that female laboratory beagles show higher proximity to humans than male beagles (Persson et al. 2015).
Genetics and relatedness to the wolf is, as earlier mentioned, suggested to play a key role in eye contact-seeking behaviour of dogs (Konno et al. 2016; Maglieri et al. 2019; Sommese et al. 2019), where breeds more closely related to wolves gaze the least towards humans during an UPT. In our study, both ancient dog breeds and solitary hunting breeds showed little gazing behaviour towards humans. However, since our solitary hunting dogs belonged to different breed groups it is difficult to fully untangle selective breeding for solitary hunting behaviour and relatedness to the wolf in this study.
The persistence in the UPT has been associated to the latency to seek eye contact with humans and has, therefore, been raised as an issue when comparing animals in their contact-seeking behaviour (Mendes et al. 2021). Indeed, we did find correlations between persistence and latency in seeking eye contact, similar to Marshall-Pescini et al. (2017). However, we found no difference in persistence in the UPT between groups, since all breed groups interacted with the test apparatus for a similar amount of time. Therefore, the differences we found in contact-seeking behaviour between groups in this study cannot be explained by the dogs’ persistence and motivation for the task.
In conclusion, all dogs showed similar interest in the UPT and while the herding dogs gazed longer at the owner, the solitary hunting dogs revealed a preference for the unfamiliar experimenter which might be linked to both breed selection and differences in the dog–human relationship.