Shelter Dogs Yearn for Social Cues and Rewards
Many researchers have studied how dogs are able to solve problems in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons. These studies have found that dogs will often look for cues in human communication to figure out different problems, though how they recognize the cues is “still under discussion.” One of the biggest debates about dog communication comes down to nature versus nurture: some authors believe that dog communication has resulted from the overall process of domestication, while others think it is acquired during “ontogeny” (early life and maturation). One way that researchers try to understand dog communication with humans is to observe them in everyday interactions with people.
One of the most important ways that dogs communicate is through “gaze.” When faced with an unsolvable problem or an inaccessible reward, dogs will gaze at human faces to “gain access to the reinforcement” or help that the human may provide. There has been some debate over whether shelter dogs (SHDs) or pet dogs (PDs) use gaze for longer periods of time to solve their problems. The purpose of this study was to collect more data and shed light on contradictions in past research about the problem-solving abilities of dogs. Taking into account that several studies show that shelter dogs are “strongly motivated to interact with people,” researchers did a series of controlled exercises with shelter dogs and pet dogs, both with the presence of people and without. The pet dogs were studied where they live, while the shelter dogs were observed in the shelter environment.
After gathering data from both groups and comparing them to controls, the researchers found that dogs’ problem-solving abilities were “not seemingly affected by a long period of time spent in shelters.” The shelter dogs were able to learn tasks and improvise when needed to access food rewards. The researchers note that “SHDs are normally affected by higher levels of chronic stress associated with poor living conditions, little contact with humans, and social isolation.” When they faced unsolvable problems, they “exhibited longer time of contact and gaze duration at the person than PDs.” The researchers suggested that, “as (the SHDs) are deprived of human social contact in their everyday life, the person represents for this group a more salient stimulus that might be acting as an alternative reinforcer when food is no longer present.” In other words, due to an absence of human contact, dogs tend perk up and pay attention when a human is present.
For companion animal advocates, especially those that work with shelter dogs, the results suggest two important takeaways. First, dogs depend on people for all kinds of communication cues; secondly, shelter dogs in particular look to humans as gatekeepers of information about how to solve problems. Even in the best of shelters, some dogs may be deprived of social contact and/or live in an environment that presents challenges for such a social species. This study shows that shelter dogs and pet dogs communicate differently, but also indicates that the difference is largely due to the living environment of the dog. This may indicate that dogs learn to communicate during “ontogeny” and that providing them with more socialization is especially important when they are living in shelters.