According to some new data it appears that dogs are continually monitoring the social interactions that their owners have with other people. Furthermore it seems that our pets are using the information that they gain from those observations to form opinions about the individuals that we interact with. Put simply, if someone slights, or acts in an unhelpful or unfriendly way toward the dog's owner they will snub or avoid that person in future interactions. This is exactly the way that a young human child acts in similar situations. This was demonstrated for human kids in a study coming from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and published in the journal Child Development*. In that research three-year-old children watched an actor behave in an unfriendly way toward a person (for example tearing up a drawing that the other individual had made). Later, when that unfriendly person needed a ball to complete a game, the children were less likely to give it to them, but rather prefered to give it to a person who had acted in a friendly or neutral way. The new research which looks at whether dogs act in a similar manner comes from a team of researchers working in the laboratory headed by Kazuo Fujita, a professor of psychology and comparative cognition at Kyoto University in Japan. This study was published in the journal Animal Behaviour**.
The process of watching individuals interact with each other is often referred to as "social eavesdropping". People use it because it is a very useful means of gathering information about how other individuals are likely to react without any real risk to the observer. This is helpful because it allows a person to "tune" their behavioral responses when interacting with those people in the future. Fujita's research team had shown in previous studies that dogs eagerly watch people all of the time and they use the information that they get to pick out which people are selfish and which are more generous. Later, when they are later given an opportunity to beg for food, the dogs use that information to decide who to approach — showing a clear preference for the more generous people (click here to read more about that). However it was not clear to Fujita as to whether the dogs were watching the people for their own immediate benefit (such as a signal that they might be able to get a treat from someone) or whether they were trying to figure out what was happening in order to form an opinion about the people involved.
In this most recent study the investigators avoid any complications associated with getting food by creating a social interaction that focused on an item that is useless to dogs (a role of vinyl tape in a clear container). In total, 54 dogs and their owners participated in the experiment which involved a set of rehearsed scenarios where the dog got to watch while its owner unsuccessfully tried to open the container which held the tape. In one set-up the dog's owner requested the help of an actor sitting nearby who then assisted by supporting the container allowing the owner to open it and retrieve the tape. In another condition the actor refused to help by turning away. The final condition was a neutral one in which the owner did not ask for help.
The important thing going on here is that the dog is watching a person being helpful or unhelpful to their owner in a situation which seems to have no rewards or benefits for the dog (since most dogs really have little use for vinyl tape). Nonetheless observing their owner interacting with other people in one of these scripted social interactions did affect the dog's behavior. This was demonstrated by observing what the dogs did next. After the scenario had played out, the actor and a neutral bystander simultaneously offered treats to the dog. The researchers then measured which person the dogs seem to prefer or avoid.
The results indicated that it was only after the dogs observed a person being unhelpful or uncooperative that their behaviors changed. Now the dogs avoided the offer of a treat from the unhelpful person and preferred the treat from the neutral person. However, when the actor helped the owner the dogs did not have a preference — they chose treats at an equal rate from both the helpful actor and the neutral bystander.
Fujita later speculated about this unexpected aspect of his data. He noted that it makes sense that the dogs avoided people who behaved negatively to their owner. On the other hand one might also expect that the dogs would prefer people who helped their owners over those who were neutral, which they did not. He attempted to explain this perplexing finding by suggesting that one explanation might be that helping is the standard expectation that dogs have in social interactions. If that is the case then being helpful is what is considered to be "normal" by dogs, and therefore helpful behavior is nothing special. It is only when someone violates this standard of "doggy morality" that the dogs form a negative impression of that individual. Yet it is in this exact asymmetry in their behavior toward people that they observe that dogs again demonstrate to researchers that canines think and act much like a human two to three-year-old child. If you remember the study that I referred to at the beginning of this article, it found that human children refused to help someone who they had seen acting in a nasty and uncooperative manner. However there was another important finding in that study, namely that the children treated someone who acted helpfully in the same way that they treated someone who acted in a neutral manner — just like the dogs.
At the scientific level these results are interesting, demonstrating that dogs shape their opinions of particular people by watching their behaviors when they interact with other humans that the dogs care about. At a philosophical level, however, the comparison of the data between the dogs and the young children sets me to thinking. It seems that both dogs and young children start out by believing that the world, and the people who live in it, are basically cooperative and helpful. It is only when they observe instances where those expectations are proven to be wrong that they then begin to change their attitudes toward specific people. If we are to draw any guidance as to how we should interact around our dogs and children from these results, they seem to suggest that we should follow the motto of Hippocrates, the classical era Greek physician, who said "First do no harm." Or at least we should follow this dictum to the extent that we do no harm when the kids or our dogs are watching.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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* Amrisha Vaish, Melinda Carpenter, & Michael Tomasello, (2010). Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child Development, 81, 1661-1669.
** Hitomi Chijiiwa, Hika Kuroshima, Yusuke Hori, James R. Anderson & Kazuo Fujita (2015). Dogs avoid people who behave negatively to their owner: third-party affective evaluation. Animal Behaviour, 106, 123-127