Reciprocal attention of dogs and owners in urban contexts

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Abstract

Laboratory-based studies have shown that paying attention to humans is an important determinant of dogs' behavior. However, there are no data on how gaze is deployed between dogs and owners in non-laboratory conditions. This study aimed at characterizing dogs' and owners' attention to each other in 2 urban contexts, characterized by a different density of dynamic stimuli. Short videos of 176 dog–owner couples walking in streets and squares of the city center (CC) or green areas (GAs) of the center of Padova (Italy) were recorded. Continuous sampling was used for recording when dogs and owners were visually oriented toward their respective partners. These data allowed calculation of the average length of continuous gazes, number of gazes per minute, and the percentage of time in which dogs and owners were oriented toward their partners; also computed were the frequency and duration of mutual gazes. Eighty-three dogs and 32 owners never looked at their reciprocal partners for the entire duration of the video. On average, dogs were oriented to owners for 0.6% of the time and looked at them 0.5 times per minute, in bouts of 0.5 seconds. All parameters of dogs' attention were higher for off-leash dogs in GAs than for on-leash dogs in both GAs and CC. Although such limited attention to owners may reflect the requirements of ongoing action, it also suggests that most dogs do not need to look at their owners during walks, possibly because they are not confronted with situations of uncertainty. Owners were oriented to their dogs for 5.3% of the time and looked at them 1.7 times per minute, in bouts of 1.4 seconds. Owners' attention was lower in CC than in GAs, which may reflect differences between contexts in the number of distracting stimuli or in owners' motivations for looking at their dogs while walking in these different contexts.

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