One of the many things we adore about dogs is their enthusiasm for life. Every owner who has come home after a long day at work to be greeted by a pooch with a waggy tail understands the canine ability to create smiles.
But can we believe all that enthusiasm? Is an owner always an endless source of fascination or does the dog sometimes fake interest?
This is a great question because dogs want to please. Therefore, dogs tend to be interested in what their owner is up to, especially if it means they get attention.
But going so far as to pretend to be interested? In truth, this level of deviousness is not something dogs are capable of (thank goodness) although they can learn to act in a certain way (which the owner reads as interest), especially if it ends with a reward or extra attention.
Signs a Dog is Interested
Most dogs investigate an interesting object initially with their nose and sense of smell, and then with their mouth by chewing or tasting. (No wonder then, that dogs get so many stomach upsets.)You can tell if a dog is interested in an object by the attention they pay it.
Dogs will look or watch an object of interest. This is usually accompanied by an alert body posture and ears pricked forward. If they associate the object with good things, such as food, they may well wag their tail at the same time.
Moving closer to an object of interest, the dog will sniff it. This gives them scent clues as to what the object is, who touched it last, and how long ago they did this. The dog may, at this stage, try tapping it with a paw to see what happens. If the dog is still interested in the object and isn't scared of it, the next step will be to try and pick it up in the mouth or lick it.
If something is really interesting, the dog may attempt to pick up and run off with it or eat it, right there and then.
The History of Dogs Showing Interest
The reason dogs may appear to show interest is that they have learned to do so wins them attention. This principle underlies modern reward-based training techniques, which in itself is an offshoot of better understanding how dogs think and animal behavior.
But people didn't always have this insight. Instead, for centuries, dogs were misunderstood as competitive animals set on dominating their owner. This 'dominance theory' of how dogs behaved held sway for too long when, in fact, it was based on flawed observations and the conclusions were incorrect.
Dominance theory came about from observing how wolves interacted with each other in captivity. The reasoning went that since dogs were related to wolves, it made sense the wild wolves would serve as a model for dog behavior.
So far so good, except the wolves observed lived in cramped conditions in a zoo. They were also disparate individuals that didn't know one another. The cramped conditions, lack of resources and that they were strangers to each other had them set on a collision course. That is why the scientists saw wolves competing against each other for the top spot: It was simply a case of survival of the fittest in a stressful environment, and not an accurate reflection of wolf behavior at all.
It's only in the past few decades that this error of observation has been recognized as faulty, and new, accurate observations of how dogs behave have usurped this view.
The Science of Dogs Showing Interest
One of the reasons dogs appear interested in their owners is that people are a source of treats and attention. The dog learns that when they act in a certain way (and we hate to burst your bubble here), such as wagging furiously when an owner comes home, they get lots of attention. This rewards that action and makes the dog more likely to repeat it. This is the basis on which modern reward-based training methods work.
Now that's not to say the dog isn't pleased to see you and is acting, just that they learned causes and effect through their own observation.
Take this a step further and the dog that shows an interest in something the owner is doing may receive a treat. So, the dog may have learned to fake interest as a means of getting a reward. Not that the dog thinks this through in a rational manner, determined to trick you. No, their motivation is purely involved with winning that lovely attention they crave.
Training a Dog to Look Interested
Training a dog to look interested is surprisingly easy. Indeed a version of this, the "Look" command, is one of the earliest cues taught to puppies in puppy class.
The principle is to decide what action makes the dog look interested. This might be sitting to attention, watching you, or making eye contact. Let's take the latter and learn how to teach a dog to stare at their owner.
Have the dog sit. Hold a tasty treat between your finger and thumb. Hold the treat just in front of the dog's nose so they can smell (but not eat) it.
Stand normally, and travel the treat along an imaginary line drawn between the dog's nose and the bridge of your nose. Move the treat steady upward, making sure it doesn't move so quickly the dog loses track. The idea is for the dog to focus attention on the treat so their attention travels to the bridge of your nose. Once the treat arrives by your brow, say "Look".
Stare back into the dog's eyes as they stare up at the treat. Make the dog wait for a second or two, then praise the dog and give the treat.
Keep practicing this but each time, expect the dog to sit and stare for a few seconds longer than the time before. Build this up from a few seconds to a full minute, before you break the stare and reward the dog.
With enough repetition, the dog will take a cue from the hand movement or from the command "Look" and stare at your eyes as if you are the most interesting person on earth.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 07/20/2018, edited: 04/06/2020