Dogs have been claimed to engage in social referencing by responding in a way that corresponded with their owners' reaction in some contexts. We aimed to assess how owners’ actions affect family dogs’ behaviour in two ambiguous lifelike situations. In Experiment 1, two groups were tested; in the suspicious owner (SO) group, owners behaved suspiciously (N = 25), in the reassuring owner (RO) group, owners behaved in a reassuring manner (N = 28) facing a ‘threatening stranger’. The sitting owners provided voice intonation and body posture changes as cues for the dogs when the stranger entered the room. Dogs looked longer at the owners and stayed longer near them in the SO group but their tendency to approach the stranger did not differ between the groups. Although the owners’ behaviours seemed to have relevant effects on dogs’ responses, we note that these looking and proximity seeking behaviours might also be explained by reactions to the owners’ behaviour alone. In Experiment 2, all dogs (N = 19) were tested in both the SO and RO conditions in a slightly different procedure. Depending on the condition, owners took one step forward/backward and spoke happily/worryingly. The procedural differences and the larger distance between the stranger and the owner allowed the dog more time to perceive the behaviour of both the stranger and the owner, which made the distinction between alternative explanations for the dogs’ behaviour easier to interpret. Dogs spent more time behind their owners in the SO condition and more dogs approached the stranger in the RO condition. Dogs’ avoidance of the stranger when the owner behaved suspiciously and their tendency to approach the stranger only when the owner displayed positive emotions, can be best explained by social referencing.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology