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Eavesdropping on Humans
Study: Dogs behave based on observations of people

My dogs always seem to be watching what I'm doing. I'd like to think they care about my well being, but I think they're more interested in any clues that I might drop food or that it might be dinner time.

A recent study led by Sarah Marshall-Pescini at the University of Milan looks at the information dogs get from watching us and the decisions they make based on that data. Her research focused on what's called interspecies evesdropping, one species (in this case a dog) watching the interactions between two members of another species (in this case two humans).

In the study, the researchers had dogs observe food-sharing between humans. One person, designated the “beggar,” approached two people sitting on separate chairs, both holding a bowl of sausages. When the beggar asked for a piece, one person said no and moved one hand in a dismissive gesture, and the other said “have it” and gave a piece to the beggar. The beggar then left the room and the dog was set free to make a choice.

The study found that the dogs were five times more likely to approach the person who shared a piece of sausage than the person who chose not to share.

My dogs, particularly my food-greedy Shelties, are particularly clever at figuring out who is most likely to give them food. In my house, we like to call it “identifying the weak one.” While the study didn't exactly surprise me, it's interesting that eavesdropping on third-party interactions is a quality that we share with our dogs. The information gained from eavesdropping is considered an important input for decision-making in many other animals, including humans.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
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