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Social Referencing in Dog-Owner Dyads

Do dogs get information from their owners before reacting toward a potentially scary object? Claudia Bensimoun interprets this scientific study


Social referencing is the seeking of information from another individual to form one's own understanding and guide action. In a study, adult dogs were tested in a social referencing paradigm involving their owner and a potentially scary object. Dogs received either a positive or a negative message from their owner. The aim of this research was to evaluate the presence of referential looking to the owner and behavioral regulation based on the owner's actions towards the object (a decorated fan). Most dogs (83%) looked referentially to the owner after looking at the strange object, appearing to seek information about the environment from the human, but few differences were found between dogs in the positive and negative groups as regards to behavioral regulation. Finally, a strong effect of observational conditioning was found with dogs in the positive group moving closer to the fan and dogs in the negative group moving away, both mirroring their owners behavior. These results are interesting in relation to studies on human-dog communication, attachment, and social learning.

The Details:

Until now, little was known about the presence of referential looking to the owner, behavioral regulation based on the owner's (vocal and facial) emotional message, and observational conditioning following the dog owner's actions towards an unfamiliar object. The behavioral regulation theory is a relatively new development that answers two key questions about instrumental conditioning. What makes something effective as a reinforcer? And how does the reinforcer produce its effect?

To address this knowledge gap, Dr. Isabella Merola, Dr. Emanuela Prato-Previde, and Dr. Sarah Marshall-Pescini from the University of Milan, Department of Biomedical Sciences, studied 90 dogs (37 males, 53 females; 61 pure breed, 29 mixed breed). Dog-owner dyads were semi-randomly assigned to one of four groups, balancing for age and sex. All in all, 44 dogs participated in the study with their owners as the informant (the informant being the person sharing information with the dog about the object, a fan). Of these, 26 were tested with the owner conveying a positive emotional message about the object (owner-positive group) and 18 with the owner giving a negative emotional message (owner-negative group). Forty-six dogs were tested with the same female stranger acting as the informant. Of these, 21 witnessed the stranger giving a positive message (stranger-positive group) and 25 a negative message (stranger-negative group). All the dogs that participated in the research lived at home with their owners.

The experimental stimulus was the same for all dogs in all groups: a 50 centimeter tall and 34 centimeter wide electric fan, with plastic green ribbons attached to it. This object was selected because it evokes a cautious reaction in most dogs, neither very positive (approaching directly and touching) nor very negative (running in the opposite direction or strong stress such as trembling, or hiding.)

In order to assess how much of an influence the informant's identity had on a dog's referential looking, the researchers made either the dog's owner or the stranger that was acting as the informant, sit reading quietly in the testing room. The dogs' behavior was then measured when the informant delivered the message (positive or negative to the dog about the ambiguous stimulus). 

Through observations, Dr. Merola, Dr. Prato-Previde, and Dr. Marshall observed that the results suggest that the dogs were probably more sensitive to the emotional expression of the stranger, yet the manner in which they changed their behavior was dependant on their relationship with the informant. Thus, when a positive message was being conveyed, significantly more dogs interacted with the fa


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