Publications of Topál, J.

The attribution of navigational- and goal-directed agency in dogs (Canis Familiaris) and human toddlers (Homo Sapiens)

Both human infants and non-human primates can recognize unfamiliar entities as instrumental agents ascribing them goals and efficiency of goal-pursuit. This competence relies on movement cues indicating distal sensitivity to the environment and choice of efficient goal-approach. While dogs’ evolved sensitivity to social cues allow them to recognize humans as communicative agents, it remains unclear whether they have also evolved a basic concept of instrumental agency. We employed a preferential object-choice procedure to test whether adult pet dogs and human toddlers can identify unfamiliar entities as agents based on different types of movement cues specifying different levels of agency. In the Navigational Agency condition, dogs preferentially chose an object that varied it’s pathway to avoid collision with obstacles over another object showing no evidence of distal sensitivity (regularly bumping into obstacles). However, in the Goal-Efficiency condition where neither objects collided with obstacles as they navigated towards a distal target, but only one of them exhibited efficient goal-approach as well, toddlers, but not dogs, showed a preference toward the efficient goal-directed agent. These findings indicate that dogs possess a limited concept of environmentally sensitive ‘navigational agency’ that they attribute to self-propelled entities capable of modifying their movement to avoid colliding with obstacles. In contrast, dogs showed no evidence of attributing the higher-level concept of ‘goal-directed instrumental agency’ based on cues of efficient goal-pursuit. Toddlers, on the other hand, demonstrated clear sensitivity to cues of efficient variability of goal-approach as the basis for differentiating, attributing, and showing preference for goal-directed instrumental agency.

Dog's gaze following is tuned to human communicative signals

Recent evidence suggests that preverbal infants’ gaze following can be triggered only if an actor’s head turn is preceded by the expression of communicative intent. Such connectedness between ostensive and referential signals may be uniquely human, enabling infants to effectively respond to referential communication directed to them. In the light of increasing evidence of dogs’ social communicative skills, an intriguing question is whether dogs’ responsiveness to human directional gestures is associated with the situational context in an infant-like manner. Borrowing a method used in infant studies, dogs watched video presentations of a human actor turning toward one of two objects, and their eye-gaze patterns were recorded with an eye tracker. Results show a higher tendency of gaze following in dogs when the human’s head turning was preceded by the expression of communicative intent (direct gaze, addressing). This is the first evidence to show that (1) eye-tracking techniques can be used for studying dogs’ social skills and (2) the exploitation of human gaze cues depends on the communicatively relevant pattern of ostensive and referential signals in dogs. Our findings give further support to the existence of a functionally infant-analog social competence in this species.