Dogs have an innate ability to communicate with humans like no other species, and fostering these abilities from a young age promotes an even deeper connection to these amazingly attuned animals. It may even decrease the number of dogs sent back to shelters for displaying antisocial behaviors!
In an article called “Puppy Power! Using social cognition research tasks to improve socialization practices for domestic dogs (Canis familiaris),” scientists Tiffani J. Howell and Pauleen C. Bennett outline some social cognition research tasks that breeders and puppy owners can apply at home. Both breeders and shelters can use these social cognition research tasks as games for puppies, to give them a better chance of finding a forever home. Pet owners can also use these games to strengthen the human-dog connection.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the games these scientists suggest to improve socialization in puppies:
1. The Object-Choice Game
In the object-choice task, puppies were presented with two containers placed 1.5-2 meters apart, with one container hiding a treat. Both containers were smeared with a desirable food scent in order to control for odor cues (if both containers smell equally yummy to the pup, we know they’re not making their decision based on scent alone.) The puppies were placed on a leash 2-3 meters from the containers and encouraged to look at the experimenter, who then pointed to the correct container. If the puppy chose the correct container they were rewarded with a treat. This is a simple process that can be done at home and may even be fun for you and your puppy! Repeating this process will encourage your dog to make eye contact with you by reinforcing the behavior with a tasty snack.
2. The Unsolvable Game
Another way to encourage eye contact with your puppy is by presenting it with an unsolvable problem, such as a locked box with visible snacks inside. This can be something as simple as a tupperware container or an empty milk jug, so long as your puppy cannot open it. While sniffing and pawing at the container, your puppy may look to you for help. Even if only for a second, they should immediately be rewarded for looking at you. However, a process like this should always be fun for the animal, so if your puppy has not yet learned or is still afraid to make eye contact, you should open the container and give them a treat anyway so as to not distress the puppy. Eventually they will learn that you are there to help!
3. The “Showing” Game
An interesting study (Miklosi et al., 2000) showed that not only do dogs use eye contact to receive information from humans, they also use it to give information to humans! This study had an experimenter hide a snack somewhere in the room with the dog watching. Then, the owner of the dog entered the room not knowing where the treat was hidden. In every case, the human was able to find the location of the hidden treat by observing the dog's gaze alternating between them and the food. This can easily be done at home with the help of a friend and is another good way to strengthen you and your dog’s bond. The goal of this game is similar to the others, but instead of showing your dog you can help them, they are learning that they can help you too! Always remember to reinforce a desired behavior (like eye contact) with a reward to show your dog they are doing what they’re supposed to do.
4. The Detour Game
The detour task requires the most setup, but if you already have baby gates puppy-proofing your home, it may work for you! The task used a v-shaped chain link fence as a barrier with a treat on the other side, but any fence or gate that allows the dog to see or smell the treat will work. Some dogs figure it out on their own, but many need a human or another dog to demonstrate how to walk around the fence to obtain the treat. As with the previous socialization games, eye contact and cue following should always be reinforced.
5. The Foot Pedal Game
For this social learning task, the authors suggest using a cheap plastic trash can with a foot pedal, which can be found at your local dollar store, Walmart, etc. Place a snack inside the can with your puppy watching, and then show them how to push on the pedal to open the lid and retrieve the snack. Much like the detour task, dogs are good at learning from humans and even other dogs, so plenty of demonstration and reinforcement should do the trick! However, like the unsolvable task, if your puppy just isn’t getting yet, it may be necessary to give them a treat anyway in order to avoid distress and frustration. This game is a great way to teach your puppy problem-solving and how to follow directions from others.
The authors of “Puppy Power” emphasize how puppy socialization plays an important role in developing well-adjusted adult dogs. This has some pretty positive implications for canine welfare because well-socialized puppies have a better chance of finding their forever homes the first time around, instead of being schlepped from foster home to shelter to foster home back to the shelter again.
Although they suggest these social cognition tasks start with breeders at a very young age, training is an ongoing process and it couldn't hurt for pet owners to try these methods at home with puppies of any age. If the theories are true, then dogs actually evolved to gaze into our eyes and give us that look (you know the look!).
So what are you waiting for? Go get some treats, make some eye contact, and start strengthening that bond!