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Can Dogs Learn from Eavesdropping?

Dogs can eavesdrop from people's reactions in third party interactions. By Claudia Bensimoun

Have you wondered how our reactions towards other people may affect the way our dogs react to the very same people? Can our body language affect the way our dogs behave?

Past research has demonstrated that the socio-cognitive abilities of dogs (in particular, dogs that are able to read human communicative gestures and cue) may be the result of the domestication process. This research has shown that dogs are able to read into human emotions and can read into whether an approaching human is friendly or not. It has also been demonstrated that dogs tend to prefer people that give them social rewards such as petting and positive verbalizations. Dogs have been known to differentiate between a smiling face and a neutral face, as well as between expressions of happiness and disgust, and they also use this information to find food. Dogs are also able to recognize sadness and will approach a crying person. With that said, researchers expected that dogs were good candidates for a new study.

Research by Drs. Freidin, Putrino, D'Orazio, and Dr. Bentosela at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, demonstrated that dogs' nonrandom choices of which person (called a "donor") to approach for food relied on the simultaneous presence of multiple clues, such as the place where donors stood and several other features such as the behavior of someone requesting food (called the "beggar"), which included gestural and verbal reactions, and eating behaviors.

In the first experiment, 1a, the researchers assessed whether the dogs could develop a preference between the donors who behaved similarly and beggars asking for food. The donors would either react positively or negatively by using hand and body movements, as well as by verbal means. If the dogs developed a preference, this would mean that the dogs were capable of discrimination between the beggar's positive and negative emotional reactions, and that the dogs were associating those specific reactions with the corresponding donor. It also meant that these dogs were using the information so that they would know which donor to go to (depending on whether the donor was friendly or not to the beggar). In the second and third experiments, 1b and 1c, the researchers tested whether dogs were conditioned to the place, instead of to the donors. In experiment 1b, the donors switched places in between demonstrations and before the dog could choose. In experiment 1c, the phantom control group, the beggar had to present the same verbal and gestural cues similar to those shown in experiment 1a, without donors and without the social interactive component.


Seventy two domestic dogs were recruited. The average age of these dogs was 4.73 years. Forty one of these dogs were male and 31 were female. There were 17 Poodles, 5 German Shepherds, 5 Labrador Retrievers, 3 Golden Retrievers, 2 Cocker Spaniels, 1 Beagle, 1 Border Collie, 1 Boxer, 1 Breton, 1 Dalmatian, 1 Fox Terrier, 1 French Bulldog, 1 Great Dane, 1 Pitt Bull Terrier, 1 Samoyed, 1 Shih Tzu, 1 Weimaraner, 1 Yorkshire, and 27 mixed breeds. Of all the dogs, 36 had previous experience in other communicative tasks.


All the subjects were randomly assigned to one of the three groups:

  • The first group used gestural and verbal cues.
  • The second group used only gestural cues.
  • The third group used only verbal cues.


All the dogs were tested in a familiar environment, either in their home or at a dog care facility that they sometimes attended. During the 5 -10 minutes that it took the researchers to set up the experiment with the camera and tape, the dogs were allowed to interact with the assista


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