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Age and breed impact how dogs visually communicate

Your dog might run into some tough day-to-day doggy problems at home, such as losing a bone under the couch. How do dogs respond to these unsolvable problems? Sometimes, they are persistent in trying to get the food out themselves. Other times, they might look at you, trying to communicate that they need help. Does the breed of your dog have an effect on how they might use visual communication with humans to solve these types of problems? A study conducted by a researcher from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and other Japanese institutions found that yes, their breed, and age, can impact their use of visual communication to ask for help solving a problem.


125 pet dogs living as companion animals – a total of 26 different breeds – were tested. Researchers utilized the Unsolvable task paradigm, (see previous post for details on this method) with six solvable trials and one unsolvable trial. All of the dogs were able to complete all six solvable trials to earn their treat reward under the clear plastic tub. During the unsolvable trials, there were age-related and breed-based differences in their behavior when they could no longer access the reward. When comparing younger and older dogs of all breeds, the older dogs gazed at the human during the unsolvable trial for significantly longer. They also found a difference when comparing the dog’s breed groups. Ancient breeds gazed at the experimenter for a shorter period of time during the unsolvable trial when compared to dogs in the Herding, Hound, Retriever, and Working breed categories. These gazing behaviors are thought of as help-seeking behaviors used to solve their problem.


These results indicate that your dog’s likelihood of using visual communication to solve a problem is likely dependent on both their age and breed. For certain breeds of dog, it might not have been advantageous in their historic purpose to use visual communication with humans to solve problems. Younger dogs might not have had the life experience to connect that visual communication with humans can be a helpful asset in solving problems.


Pictured is Bandit, who has himself completed a practice game of the unsolvable task!


Konno, A., Romero, A., Inoue-Murayama, M, Saito, A., Hasegawa, T. (2016). Dog Breed Differences in Visual Communication with Humans. PLoS ONE 11(10), e0164760. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0164760

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