Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Social Referencing in Dogs

When human infants see something they are unsure of, they look to their caregiver to see what their reaction is. This is called social referencing. It has two components: first of all, a look from the object to the caregiver; and second, a reaction to the object (approach or avoidance) that is influenced by the caregiver’s response. This is well established in infants at twelve months of age. Do dogs do the same thing?

Two recent papers by Merola and colleagues set out to investigate, using a method similar to infant studies. They needed a slightly-scary object; something that will make a dog feel cautious, but not so scary that it will turn and run away. They decided to use an electric fan with streamers attached. 

In the first paper, published in Animal Cognition, the owner brought their dog into the room with the fan. The fan was at the far end of the room, and as soon as the owner closed the door, the fan was turned on by remote control. The owner stopped at a specific mark on the floor and released the dog.  The owner then stood still and looked at the fan with a neutral expression (phase 1). What happened next depended on whether the dog was assigned to a positive or negative condition. There were three further phases in which the owner gave a positive or negative response to the fan using speech and facial expression (phase 2), and movement towards or away from the fan (phases 3 and 4). These reactions were later rated by people who were blind to the aims of the experiment, to confirm that they were indeed positive or negative as intended. The dog’s behaviour was observed throughout.

A pretty biewer yorkie with an autumnal display of fruits and foliage
 
Seventy-five dogs took part. Seventeen were excluded from analysis because of mistakes by the owners, and some were excluded from most of the analyses because they confidently approached the fan right at the start. Of the remaining dogs, 83% looked at their owner at least once after seeing the fan. Once the owners started reacting to the fan, dogs in the negative group were significantly more likely to remain still than those in the positive group. Also, in the last two phases of the study (once the owner had moved), dogs in the negative condition spent significantly more time interacting with the owner. This shows they have responded to their owner’s negative message by avoiding the fan.

This study shows that most of the dogs engaged in social referencing to see what their owner thought of the fan. However, the experiment had an initial phase in which the owner was neutral, which is different from studies with infants. This disrupted normal social referencing behaviour, since the owner was artificially silent in response to the dog’s look, and only began to respond after a pre-set time had elapsed. Also, it would be interesting to know whether dogs do social referencing with a stranger as well as their owner.

The second paper, published in PloS One, involved a new set of ninety dogs. This time, both the owner and a stranger were in the room with the dog. Either the owner or stranger acted as the informant, while the other person sat on a chair and read a book throughout, paying no attention to the dog. The experimental procedure was similar, except this time the informant began responding to the fan as soon as the dog looked back at them (phase 1). Then, the fan was turned off (phase 2), and the informant stayed in the same place, but continued to give the positive or negative message every time the dog looked at them. This design is much closer to that used in the infant cognition literature. 

As before, some results had to be discarded either because of errors made by the owners or because the dogs were very confident about the fan. Results from the remaining dogs showed that 76% of dogs with the owner as informant, and 60% of dogs with the stranger, showed referential looking at the informant.  There were significant differences in behaviour depending on whether the message was positive or negative. Interestingly, there is also evidence that dogs responded more to their owner than to a stranger. When the informant was the owner, dogs in the positive group reached the space near the fan more quickly, and dogs in the negative group took longer to reach the fan, than when the informant was a stranger. When the message was negative, dogs looked to the seated person more if it was the owner rather than a stranger, suggesting that they wanted information from their owner too. 

At the end of both studies, the fan was turned off and the experimenter sat next to it and gave the dogs treats. This was to make sure the dogs would not be frightened by fans in future.

These two studies show that dogs use gaze to look at a person for information when they are faced with something they are unsure about, and their subsequent behaviour is based on the person’s reaction. With some small differences, these results are very similar to those found in studies of infants.

Have you ever noticed your dog looking to you for information about something unfamiliar?

References
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011). Social referencing in dog-owner dyads? Animal Cognition, 15 (2), 175-185 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-011-0443-0
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012). Dogs' Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers PLoS ONE, 7 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047653

18 comments:

  1. As a trainer and owner of a fearful dog, I feel it's so important to really watch what our dogs are telling us. This study really drives home what many of us have known, that our dogs are watching us and looking at us for guidance too.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. You're right, this has a very practical application in everyday life.

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  2. Wait, how can you remove the group that confidently approached the fan right at the start? They should be counted with the other 17% that did not use social referencing.

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    1. These studies are based on research with infants, and how they react to something about which they are unsure. So the study with the dogs (especially the second one) tried to use a very similar set-up to that used in studies with infants. If the dogs are very confident about the fan to begin with, then they don't need to look and see what their caregiver thinks of it, because they've already made up their own mind. In other words, they have no need for social referencing; it's something that happens when infants (and, now, dogs) are uncertain. That's why the confident dogs were not included in the analysis. Great question, thank you!

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  3. I am a terrier and i can confirm this is true, I look at my human for everything because i don't really know what to do. :\

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  4. Yes, my dog look at me all the time. Except of course its a fast moving animal (squirrel or rabbit) or another dog.

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    1. Yes, squirrels are very interesting ...

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  5. I walk on an off-leash, woodsy trail with my two dogs every day. I have figured out that if I greet someone who is walking toward me in a cheerful voice, my dogs are far more friendly & less suspicious of that person.

    No greeting: Dogs go around the stranger and avoid him/her and have guarded body language in general. If I start talking to the person, they would eventually make friends with the stranger.

    Friendly Greeting: Dogs immediately go up and sniff that person and allow themselves to be petted.


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    1. That's an interesting observation. I wonder if you ever notice the dogs looking at you while they wait for your reaction. It sounds like you have a nice place to walk the dogs too. Thank you for sharing.

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  6. That's a well written article. I feel my dog looking at me when I'm sleeping. I wonder why he does this?

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    1. Thanks. Of course, I have to ask how you can tell if you are sleeping ... ;-). But I think our dogs watch us a lot.

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  7. Absolutely, my dog looks at me for cues all of the time (I live beside a park and there are often noises that she perks up to, and then looks at me to see if she should be alarmed).

    The most interesting time, however, was when the air show was in town. See, she loves both my partner and I, but she's much more a Mommy's girl than Daddy's. (I'm Mommy). Anyways, my husband was napping on the couch when a fighter jet went over head, rather low. It was extremely loud.

    He woke up in a fright, and my dog went 'on attention' and looked right at me. I had to reassure both. First dog "it's ok" (the command for..well..it's ok) and then husband, with an explanation of what was going on.

    Our dog looked at me, at him, then back at me again. And I swear she laid down calmly before hubby's breathing started to slow down.

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    1. That's a great story! Thank you. It's a lovely illustration of social referencing in daily life.

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  8. I have noticed this, and I have suspected that that's what was happening. Very interesting! Will pay more attention to the behavior in the future.

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    1. The funny thing is that since I wrote about this, I have been paying a lot more attention to it myself. I like it when science in the lab is applicable to everyday life too.

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  9. I would like to know if this behavior is also present when they are in a pack situation. Do they referentially look at the pack leader, or is this a trait that they have developed as a result of living with humans. In other studies, it seems social referencing is a predominantly human response, so would this still apply in the field, in regards to both wild dogs and dogs that have packed together from a neighborhood. I'll probably never know.

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  10. As a professional in the animal service industry (vet. technician/groomer/show dog handler) for many years and a student of animal (esp. dog) behavior I can agree this is a very important and misunderstood part of canine decision making. When I'm holding a dog for exam, shots or anything else for a doctor they look to the owner for cues throughout the process and the people with over dramatic, loud or nervous behavior directly influence their pets. PLEASE learn to watch what you do! It makes more difference than you could imagine for your dog; you are constantly having a conversion with them through body language so you must be mindful of the here and now.

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