October 31, 2017

Follow the Leader: Dogs Synchronize Their Movements with Humans

Dogs will match the movement and gaze of humans, suggesting a strong affiliative bond between dogs and their owners.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Behavioral synchronization, which occurs in pairs and groups, is common in humans and animals. It serves several purposes, including escaping predators and building social cohesion. For example, bottlenose dolphins will sync their swimming and breathing periods. In addition, dogs demonstrate synchronization during howling and running.

In humans, affiliation between partners affects synchronization, such as walking side by side. Reportedly, synchronization between dogs and humans can occur only if affiliation exists between these species; such affiliation is likely already present, given dogs’ sensitivity to human behavioral cues. However, to date, dog-human synchronization has been little researched.

In the first study of its kind, published in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers provided empirical evidence of off-leash dogs synchronizing their movements with humans in an enclosed space.

Testing
Researchers observed 48 healthy pet dogs (24 each, shepherds and molossoids) in an unfamiliar, quiet testing room. During the video-recorded testing sessions, the study dog remained off-leash while its owner performed 1 of several experimental conditions in 30-second intervals, such as staying still or walking back and forth. The owner did not interact with the dog.

Video recordings were analyzed for 3 types of behavioral synchrony, as defined by the researchers:
  • Location—same place at same time
  • Activity—same behavior at same time
  • Temporal—switching actions at same time

Statistical analyses determined the effect of dogs’ age, breed, and sex on synchronization.

Observations
During each 30-second testing session, dogs spent approximately 80% of the time in close proximity to their owners.

Location synchrony. When owners stood in either the center or sides of the testing room, their dogs stood with them. This strong location synchrony was not affected by the dogs’ age, breed, or sex.

Activity synchrony. The dogs matched the activity of their owners—when the owners stood still or moved, so did their dogs. Interestingly, the dogs also matched the forward-facing gaze of their owners, indicating gazing synchrony. Neither age, breed, nor sex influenced the dogs’ activity.

Temporal synchrony. On average, dogs switched their activity about 3.5 seconds after their owners did (stationary to moving or vice versa). Sex had no effect. However, temporal synchrony was markedly greater in older dogs than in younger dogs, likely because of more learning with age. In addition, the shepherds switched activity faster than the molossoids; molossoids are heavy and sturdy dogs and thus need more time to switch activity.

Why the Synchrony?
Strong affiliative bonds likely explain the strong synchrony observed in this study. In particular, the use of either negative or positive reinforcement to guide a dog’s behavior can strengthen the dog-human bond and encourage a dog to sync its movements with those of its owner. Other possible explanations, such as stress or a nonconscious optomotor reflex, are less likely.

Looking Forward
The study’s findings suggest the roles of social cognition, affiliation, and learning in dogs syncing their behavior with humans. To further study what affects this synchronization, researchers suggested examining other factors, including owner gender, duration of ownership, and degree of affiliation.

Overall, the researchers concluded that “pet dogs act like their owners’ shadows.”

 
Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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