Our relationship with dogs really is one-of-a-kind. Dogs are incredibly tuned in to our behaviours and learn a lot about a situation purely based on our reactions. Researchers at the Aix Marseille University in France have discovered that, when confronted with a stranger, dogs look to their owners for guidance and react according to their owner’s reaction. Even without an emotional response, the simple physical action of the owner moving away from – or towards – a stranger significantly affects the way the dog approaches them.
Previous research has found that dogs react to unfamiliar objects in different ways depending on their owner’s reaction to the object. If their owner appeared happy with one object and disgusted with another, the dog would reliably approach the “happy” object much more than the “disgusting” object. Dogs understand and use lots of information from humans including pointing, gazing and facial expressions to decide on a behaviour to exhibit. Dogs have also been found to copy human strategies to solve a puzzle even when there is an alternative, easier way of solving it.
In human infants, when confronted with a stranger, infants look to their mother and react depending on the mother’s reaction to the stranger. This study aimed to see if something similar would happen between a dog and its owner.
How They Did It
The study used 2 breed categories of dogs – shepherds and molossoids (mastiff type dogs and mountain dogs).
The dogs used in the study were pet dogs who usually got along well with strangers. In the experiment the dogs were off lead and were taken into a room (that they had already been allowed to explore) with their owners. The owner then stood at the starting point in the middle of the room and looked straight ahead. They were instructed to keep their facial expressions as neutral as possible. A stranger then entered the room and took three steps towards a specific location and stopped, facing the owner at all times. The stranger and owner were instructed to only look at each other and to both keep their faces as blank as possible. They were not allowed to look at the dog or speak at any point. The owners were randomly given one of three instructions before they entered the room.
Approach condition: the owner is to take 3 steps towards the stranger
Still condition: the owner is to stay still
Retreat condition: the owner is to take 3 steps away from the stranger (still facing them)
The stranger and owner then stayed in these locations for 1.5 minutes while the dog’s reactions were recorded.
Over 75% of the dogs studied looked back at their owners after seeing the stranger and almost as many looked back and forth between the stranger and owner multiple times. Female dogs actually took significantly less time before looking back at their owners than male dogs and they looked at their owners for longer. This may be because male dogs are naturally more bold than females when confronted with something unfamiliar or because females naturally seek more information. This result is particularly interesting as, in human infant studies, a similar sex difference was found.
In terms of breed differences it would appear that the only difference was in time spent interacting with the stranger. Molosser breeds spent significantly more time interacting with the stranger than the shepherd breeds. This is probably the result of breed differences from what the breeds were originally selected to do. Shepherds were originally selected as herding dogs where they were encouraged to focus more at their owners for commands etc. Whereas molosser breeds were first selected for guarding and so would naturally be more interested and focused on strangers. Molossoid breeds also happen to be naturally more bold than shepherd breeds as they have been selected to react well to strange and unusual situations.
As expected, dogs in the “retreat condition” were more hesitant and waited significantly longer before interacting with the stranger than the dogs in the “approach condition”. It would appear that the dogs did react to their owner’s initial response to the stranger and behaved differently as a result.
It is interesting that in both the “still condition” and “retreat condition” dogs showed more behaviours towards their owners than in the “approach condition”. This may be because they are seeking reassurance or more information from their owner. While the “still condition” seems neutral to us, it may actually be seen more negatively to dogs as it is quite unnatural for their owner to be totally still and silent. They also might think that the human is showing a fear response by freezing. This may explain why the dogs reacted similarly to both the “still condition” and “retreat condition”.
So it would seem that dogs do indeed use our reactions as a guide for what to do when confronted with a stranger. Even just the basic movements we make is enough to make dogs react differently. So when on walks with your dog, be mindful of the way that you react and use your own behaviour to help your dog manage every day life. By moving forwards towards a stranger you can physically teach your dog to react positively towards other people. If you move backwards from someone you may be inadvertently making your dog anxious and accidentally teaching them to be scared of strangers. Dogs really are amazing creatures and are so tuned in and connected with us that we must be mindful of our behaviours and reactions when with them.
Duranton, C., Bedossa, T. and Gaunet, F. (2016) When facing an unfamiliar person, pet dogs present social referencing based on their owners’ direction of movement alone. Animal Behaviour (113) pp.147-156