A spate of animal behavior studies has recently confirmed what dog owners have believed for thousands of years – our canine companions can distinguish different human emotional cues by reading facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
This ability, known as social referencing, is what enables humans – and a growing list of other animals – to respond and interact with others and the environment appropriately according to the mood of those around them. Social referencing is particularly important for young animals, as they refer to the reactions of caregivers in order to guide them through new and potentially dangerous situations, which, at that stage of life, constitute most situations.
Now, a team of researchers based in Budapest, Hungary, have demonstrated that the human-dog bond runs so deep that puppies will trust human cues about novel stimuli when they are only 2 months old.
Their study, published in Animal Behavior, assessed the reactions of 48 puppies of multiple breeds to two previously unseen objects: an electric fan fluttering long ribbons or a plastic bin hanging from puppy head height that contained a speaker playing a loop of creaking sounds and a siren. Each puppy was randomly assigned to face one of the stimuli within an enclosed pen in the presence of their mother, an unfamiliar dog, or alone, for two minutes.
Then, each puppy was exposed to the other stimulus with a human expressing positive emotional cues, a neutral human, or alone.
In the co-dog experiments, both the mother and unfamiliar dog were pre-trained to not fear the stimulus, and were sat 1.5 meters (5 feet) from it. For the human set-ups, the person in the pen with the puppy stood the same distance from the object and alternated looking at it and the puppy whilst either smiling and speaking cheerfully or expressing a flat affectation.
The researchers found that puppies facing a novel stimulus in the presence of a social partner engaged in "referential looking" – alternating studying the new object and the companion. Those in the company of a positive human were much more likely to approach and interact with it compared with those who were exposed to it alone, with an unfamiliar dog, or a neutral person.
In repeat trials, performed to assess whether the puppies retained their sense of safety around the stimuli, the fuzzballs not only looked to the companion less but also showed similar reactions to the stimuli as they had previously.
“To our knowledge this is the first evidence that, in social referencing situations, dogs (more specifically, dog puppies) acquire and retain some information and that this information is used to regulate their behaviour not only immediately, but also after a delay and when the informant is no longer present,” the authors wrote. “This result suggests that even a very short exposure to such a situation constitutes a social learning occasion.”
“If so, this has applied consequences, because the owners' attitude in novel situations may affect the puppies' future behaviour in those situations.”
In summary, as trainers have been telling us forever, plaster a big smile on your face and coo like an idiot when you take your puppy out to experience new things if you want it to grow into a well-adjusted dog.