Roles for referential focus in effective and efficient canine signaling: Do pet and working dogs differ?

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Working dogs trained to be detection/sniffer dogs must work closely with their human partners. Pet dogs are also often asked to perform tasks, whether in a casual context (e.g., going for a walk) or as part of more formal activity (e.g., competitive sport). For the best performance outcomes, each partner must signal well to the other, and accurately read and respond to the other's signals. As part of a larger study comparing problem-solving behavior and information use in working dogs and pet dogs, we compared the detailed responses of 40 detection dogs and 80 pet dogs to verbal signals under two conditions: when the handler was facing the dog (front-facing condition) versus when the handler had his back to the dog, while giving a verbal request (back-facing condition). We hypothesize that: (1) both groups of dogs would be more accurate and faster in response when they could see the humans’ faces and anterior bodies (front-facing condition) than in the back-facing condition; (2) dogs who did not respond immediately and correctly to the signal would exhibit behavioral signs of anxiety, uncertainty, and possibly distress, and such signals would be more common in the back-facing condition; and (3) the working dogs would be more consistent and successful as a group when compared to the pet dogs because working dogs have been specifically trained to do a job, in joint collaboration with humans who signal to them when and where to do the job and when they are successful. As such, clear signaling and response was already part of their practiced and tested daily life, and so should be reflected in their testing in this study. All testing was video recorded using the same test design and same order of tests. Neither pet nor working dogs were familiar with the test before initial testing, and neither was tested in a physical space that was familiar to them. Video analysis determined latency to response, time to completion of requested task, and identification of behaviors exhibited during the two conditions (human facing the dog/front-facing condition, or with the human's back turned to the dog/back-facing condition). Requests were given verbally using a normal tone of voice. Handlers were asked not to use hand signals. The three requests used were “sit,” “down,” and “stay”. For most comparisons, dogs were slower to respond and took longer to complete each request when they were unable to see the handler's face (back-facing condition) (all P < 0.05). The behaviors exhibited when the working dogs could not see their handler's face were largely associated with seeking further information that would allow the dog to comply with the request. This pattern of response suggests that improvements in signaling behavior and understanding for both team members can and should be made and should lead to improvements in the dogs’ welfare and better team performance. Pet dogs exhibited both information-seeking behaviors and those associated with anxiety when they could not see their owner's face, suggesting that working on efficient and accurate exchange of cues and responses would improve pet dog welfare and help to create a trusting relationship where anxiety about collaborative tasks is minimized.

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