Study Shows Dogs Play More When Humans Are Watching

Dog owners often find watching their pet playing and having fun both heartwarming and entertaining. Those who have two or more dogs may also enjoy watching how their dogs interact with each other and may even have fun getting involved in the dogs’ playtime. Something that most dog owners will not realize is that their dogs may play and interact with each other in different ways when their owner is present to how they behave when they are not in the presence of humans. A recent study shows that is the case, as a human audience impacts a dog’s behavior.

An Overview of the Study

Lindsay Mehrkam is an animal behaviorist and an assistant professor at Monmouth University. She is the lead author of a paper looking at how animals behave in front of humans. She says that dogs are attuned to the level of human interest they are receiving. Although this is already known, Mehrkam says that they do not know of any research into how a human audience impacts species-typical behavior. According to Phys Org, the experiment involved observing the behavior of 10 pairs of dogs that had lived together for a minimum of six months. The owners of the pairs of dogs all reported that their dogs played with each other at least once every day. The study involved the researchers videoing the dog pairs under different conditions. First, they videoed the dogs when the owner was not at home. Next, they videoed the dogs when their owner was in the room but not paying attention to the dogs. Finally, the researchers videoed the dogs while the owner was present and showering the dogs with attention by petting them and giving them verbal praise. The researchers conducted their study over several days of filming. Doing so ensured that their study was robust.

The Findings of the Study

Mehkram studied the videos carefully to observe the differences in the way the dogs behaved in the three situations. The main finding of the study was that having the owner present and paying attention facilitated play between the dogs. When the owner was present and attentive, both the intensity of the play and the frequency of playful behavior increased. Some of the behaviors included playful bites, chasing, hip nudges, wrestling, and bowing. Clive Wynne of Arizona State University co-authored the paper. Wynne found it surprising that although the dogs had the opportunity to play with each other at any point in the day, they were more likely to do so when a human was present and paying them attention.

What Do the Findings Mean?

While the observations of the researchers were interesting, it led to them questioning why dogs are more playful with each other if their owner is present. They had several ideas as to why dogs may behave in this manner. One reason is that dogs may see their owner coming to play with them as a reward. Just like children seek the attention of their parents, dogs also seek the attention of their owners. They may learn that if they behave playfully when their owner is present, they will enjoy the prize of their owner joining in the fun. Another possible explanation is that the dogs see their owners as offering them some safety during play. One reason that dogs play is to strengthen their bond. However, playtime can also lead to aggression in dogs, and the situation may become tense. There is less likelihood of aggression and tension if a human is around to intervene and prevent a fight from taking place. A further reason that dogs may behave differently in their owner’s presence is that they see humans as enriching their environment. The dogs may associate their owner with happiness, which encourages them to get involved in playtime. Similarly, dogs experience a rush of the oxytocin hormone when they are with their owner, and this hormone makes them feel happy. It is possible that this could encourage them to play more due to their positive emotional state. Mehrkam says that the study has opened up a lot of new questions, and she is now working on finding the answers to these questions.

What About the Behavior of Other Animals?

So, if the presence of humans has such an impact on dog behavior, is it possible that human presence may also impact the behavior of other animals? One study says that humans may also have a similar effect on pigs. Researchers from the ELTE Department of Ethology in Budapest conducted a study to compare how companion pigs and companion dogs behave in the presence of humans. In the study, the animals were taken to an unfamiliar environment. If their owner was also in this environment, then both dogs and companion pigs would stay close to the human. However, the situation differed if a stranger was introduced to the environment rather than their owner. In this situation, the dogs would go to the stranger, indicating their need to feel close to humans, regardless of whether it was their owner or a stranger. On the other hand, the pigs stayed away from the stranger, showing that they only needed a human’s security if it was someone they knew. According to the researchers, the differences in domestication and socialization are a possible cause for the differences in the two species’ behavior. Dogs have a long history of domestication and socialization with humans, while pigs have predominantly been kept as farm animals. However, the pigs in the experiment had lived alongside humans since the age of six weeks. The researchers are keen to learn more about the effects of early socialization of a species and the impact that human presence has on different species. More studies may follow that aim to answer the questions that have arisen from the completed research and to compare the behavior of different species when humans are present.

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