"Asking" for a Hidden Object - Gaze Alternation in Dogs

Have you ever wondered why your dog will stare at your face as if to get your attention, then flick his/her eyes to another location, then back to your face – all with no or little movement of the head?  

The reason is most likely that s/he is asking for a hidden object – probably food or a toy.  My old boy used to do this frequently when he wanted a carrot.  He knew where they were kept on the counter-top, and would stand and stare at the location, then flick his eyes to my face, then back again to the carrot location.  Carrots were his ‘filler food’, designed to fill his stomach without actually put weight on him and so he was fed them fairly liberally to stop him scrounging more fattening foods.  As a Labrador with hip and elbow dysplasia, keeping his weight down was of utmost importance!

A recent French study has demonstrated that dogs exhibiting this behaviour are indeed attempting to communicate to their human partner the location of a hidden object that they desire. 

In a similar vein, both dogs will stand motionless and stare fixedly at the bottom edge of a sofa or fridge if a treasured plaything or a tasty treat has been knocked underneath.  They stand staring and motionless, ears forward, not looking at me, for several minutes until I come to see the reason for their unusual behaviour and retrieve the hidden object for them.

So the next time you see your dog do this, just follow the direction of their gaze and try to understand what they want – it will help strengthen the bond between you if your dog has confidence in your ability to understand his communications.

Marshall-Pescini, S., Colombo, E., Passalacqua, C., Merola, I. and Prato-Previde, E., 2013. Gaze alternation in dogs and toddlers in an unsolvable task: evidence of an audience effect. Animal cognition16(6), pp.933-943.