Response of Different Dog Breeds to Visual Cues
| November 10th, 2009

Dog Breeds:
Comparing Cooperation & Attention

Dog Pointing Finger

When you point at something, does your dog look at where you’re pointing? Or does he look at your finger? Is responding to this visual cue an inherited genetic trait, something we humans have bred for in the domestication of dogs? Or is it more a matter of the dog’s training?

Researchers Marta Gacsi, et al. have just published a very interesting study, “Effects of selection for cooperation and attention in dogs,” in the recent issue of Behavioral and Brain Functions that sheds much light on these questions.

The study was conducted in two parts. In both parts of the research, dogs were given a choice of two overturned bowls: one bowl concealed a treat, the other was empty. The experimenter would get the dog’s attention and then point to the correct bowl. After repeating many trials, with many different breeds, they counted the number of times the dog correctly followed the researcher’s pointing finger and made their way to the correct bowl.

In the first part of the study, they compared three groups of dogs: Group 1 consisted of Independent Working Dogs; Group 2 consisted of Cooperative Working Dogs; and Group 3 consisted of Mutts. In the second part of the study, they compared brachycephalic breeds to dolichocephalic breeds.

Yes, you just learned two very cool new words that we insist you begin using as often as possible. Brachycephalic means having a short nose. (Think Pug.) Dolichocephalic means having a long, pointy nose. (Think Afghan.)

Take a moment and see if you can predict the results. Who would be better at following a pointing gesture: dogs that have been specifically bred to work outside of visual contact with humans (independent workers), dogs that have been bred to work alongside humans (cooperative workers), mutts, or would it make no difference whatsoever and depend solely on training?

And, while you’re placing bets, what about the short nose versus pointy nose contestants? Does that long nose point them in the right direction, or does it just get in the way?

Ok, no peeking, spoiler alert. Here are the results:

If you guessed Cooperative Breeds, you’re right. Breeding has made a difference, as these dogs greatly outperformed the other two groups in responding to the visual cue of the human pointing gesture.

And, for the second part of the test, turns out that big old nose does get in the way. The brachycephalic dogs significantly outperformed the dolichocephalic breeds.

The results of the first test come as no surprise. But to find an explanation for the short-nosed dogs outperforming the long-nosed dogs, we have to look past our “nose gets in the way” theory and examine physiological differences in the brains of the two breed classifications. We’ll let the study’s authors explain:

A recent study… reported that ganglion cells in brachycephalic breeds occur more centrally in the retina. Since, in other species, such arrangement usually correlates with the retinal location of greatest visual acuity… brachycephalic breeds might respond most to stimuli in the central field (i.e., when looking forward) because they are less disturbed by visual stimuli from the peripheral field. Accordingly, we hypothesized that this morphological change could also influence performance in the two-way choice task and give brachycephalic breeds an advantage over dolichocephalic breeds.

Dog Breeds Used in the Study

Below is the list of all the different dog breeds used in both parts of the study – the first part comparing Independent Worker Dog Breeds to Cooperative Worker Dog Breeds to Mutts; the second part comparing long-nosed breeds to short-nosed breeds.

Independent Working Dog Breeds

Independent Working Dogs are breeds that have been developed to perform important tasks on their own – without need for human guidance and communication as they carry out their tasks. In other words, although they work with humans, they perform their jobs while outside of the sight of their owners or handlers. These breeds include hounds, earth dogs (dogs used for hunting underground prey), sled dogs, and livestock guard dogs.

  • Caucasian ovcharka
  • Great Pyreneen
  • Komondor
  • Kuvasz
  • Bedlington terrier
  • Cairn terrier
  • Dachshound
  • Jack Russell
  • Parson Russell
  • Welsh terrier
  • West H. W. terrier
  • Basset hound
  • Beagle
  • Bloodhound
  • Hannover hound
  • Hungarian greyhound
  • Slovak hound
  • Transylvanian hound
  • Whippet
  • Alaskan malamute
  • Siberian husky

Cooperative Working Dog Breeds

Cooperative Working Dogs perform their tasks alongside humans; in other words, with their owners or handlers in continuous visual proximity. These breeds typically include sheepdogs and gundogs.

  • Australian shepherd
  • Border collie
  • Briard
  • Dutch shepherd
  • German shepherd
  • Groenendale
  • Kelpie
  • Malinois
  • Mudi
  • Pumi
  • Puli
  • Tervueren
  • Rough collie
  • Shetland sheepdog
  • Tibetan terrier
  • German pointer
  • Golden retriever
  • Irish setter
  • Labrador
  • Hungarian vizsla
  • Weimaraner


The lovable mutts selected by the researchers excluded any that closely resembled any given pedigreed dog breed.

  • Mutts (or as the study authors called them “Mongrels”)

Brachycephalic Breeds

Better known as short-nosed dog breeds

  • American bulldog
  • Boxer
  • Bulldog
  • Bullmastif
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Chow-chow
  • Dogo Canario
  • French bulldog
  • Newfoundland
  • Pug
  • Rottweiler
  • Shar pei
  • Staffordshire bull terrier
  • Tibet spaniel

Dolichocephalic Breeds

Better known as long-nosed dog breeds

  • Afghan hound
  • Bedlington terrier
  • Dachshound
  • Doberman
  • English setter
  • Foxterrier
  • Irish setter
  • Hungarian greyhound
  • Podenco Ibicenco
  • Rough collie
  • Russian greyhound
  • Shetland sheepdog
  • Welsh terrier
  • Whippet

Enjoy our other articles about Canine Research.

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One Response  
Colin Roberts writes:

Very interesting. As I am currently doing an article on ‘semaphore’ (eg hand signals) in dog training I have found that if the hand signal is clear and moving in the sight of the dog then it is more effective and that this applied to peripheral vision too. Surely then the brachycephalic dogs must move their heads more as their eyes are more directional.


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