What do our dogs learn from watching us?

What do our dogs learn from watching us?

Your canine companion picks up on more than you might think! Here’s what dogs learn from watching us.

From a dog’s point of view, the world can be a scary and confusing place. Take technology, for example. Dogs often don’t know what to think or do when they encounter certain devices we take for granted. I remember my dog shaking in fear the first time he encountered an elevator door. Another dog I knew fiercely attacked the rolling suitcase being pulled by his beloved mistress. He clearly thought it was pursuing her, and leapt to her defense.

These reactions are a little out of the ordinary, however. In the vast majority of cases, despite the many novel and unusual situations our average dogs encounter, they learn to adapt and react appropriately to their environments. So the interesting psychological question is: “How do they do that?”

Do dogs learn like small children?

Sometimes it is the casual observation of everyday events that helps us learn what is going on in a dog’s mind. Do you recall a time where you both walked into a room or some unfamiliar place, and your dog seemed to scan the surroundings, acting unsure about what was going on there? Think back to this situation and try to remember what your dog did next. Most likely he turned his head to look at — and learn from — you.

A team of psychologists in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Milan, guided by Dr. Sarah Marshall-Pescini, noticed that this behaviour in dogs is very similar to actions that psychologists typically observe in young human children. Technically, it’s called “social referencing”, and it involves trying to use another person’s perceptions and interpretation of a situation to help understand the circumstances better. Social referencing helps guide the child’s future behaviour, which is very useful, in general, since it allows people to avoid making mistakes that could happen if they blundered through a situation in a trial-and-error fashion.

The experiment

To see if dogs act in a similar way to young children, the researchers had to set up a situation that would arouse a mild degree of stress in a dog — just enough to cause a bit of worry and uncertainty — but not enough to generate real fear. The solution turned out to be very simple. They took a common oscillating fan and attached plastic streamers to it. When they turned on the fan, the sound of the motor and the snapping of the “flying” streamers provided an unusual stimulus that a dog might view as potentially worrying. In the dog’s mind, after all, each of the streamers might have a mouth that can bite, so this wildly-moving thing could be a version of the mythical many-headed hydra that Hercules slew (if the dogs knew anything about Greek mythology)!

The first thing the scientists wanted to determine is whether or not social referencing occurs only during times of uncertainty (as with children). To accomplish this, unleashed dogs were brought into a room while the scientists explained the experiment to their owners. Without the fan present, the dogs tended to wander around the room, and seldom glanced at their owners. In the testing situation with the fan on, results were vastly different. The dogs hesitantly took a few steps into the room and then a full 83% of them immediately turned to look at their owners before turning their gazes back to the fan. They alternated looking back and forth, seemingly searching for an interpretation of the strange object from their trusted “persons”.

With the dogs reacting in this way, the scientists next wanted to determine whether the canines would effectively act on the basis of their owners’ emotional responses. They asked the men and women to deliver a simple negative or positive verbal message in an appropriate tone of voice. The negative group used expressions such as “That is really ugly!” or “I don’t like the look of that!”, while the positive group used phrases such as “Wow, that’s really pretty!” or “That is nice”.

How do our dogs learn from us?

It turns out that dogs are very sensitive to a negative or cautious response from their owners. When owners expressed displeasure about the stimulus, the dogs tended to pretty much freeze in place. This is very much the same sort of thing human toddlers do when confronted by negative messages from their caretakers. The dogs did not seem to be as responsive to positive verbal messages, however. Their behaviour changed very little and they continued to move around the room a bit, seemingly still trying to interpret the strange object. It is almost as if they glanced at their owners and asked, “Should I worry about this?” and if the answer was “No”, they simply carried on with what they were doing before.

The situation changed, however, if the owners made the positive or negative content of their messages more explicit by using whole body communication rather than just a verbal comment. If their humans approached the worrisome object without fear, the dogs also approached. If the owner then crouched near the object, the dog often came even closer and tried to touch it. But if the dog’s owner moved away from the object as if it bothered him, then the dog moved with him and refused to go anywhere near the suspicious object.

The results

Taken together, this research suggests that dogs, like human children, look to the significant humans in their lives to help them interpret situations that might be ambiguous or problematic. They look at their human caretakers’ faces when they are worried, and seem to search for evidence that suggests their humans feel the same way. Just like human children, dogs look to us for an interpretation of whether things are good or bad. They then adjust their own behaviour and emotional responses according to how they interpret our emotional reactions. After all, staying close to their humans when they move away from the object is a behaviour that is most likely to keep the dogs out of trouble.

So it appears that when we are around our dogs, we should follow the same guidelines offered in parenting books. In particular, we should watch our own emotional responses in ambiguous situations – for the sake of both our children and our dogs!

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Stanley Coren is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is also an award winning behavioural researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was named as one of the 2,000 outstanding scientists of the 20th century. His many books on dog behaviour and human-canine interactions have been international bestsellers. His awards include the prestigious Maxwell Medal of Excellence from The Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. Coren has been featured on Oprah, Larry King, and can be heard broadcasting a radio column on CBC. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream.