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Dogs Avoid People Acting Badly to Their Owner—Cats Don't

Dogs watch and evaluate the helpfulness of people while cats simply observe.

Key points

  • Research shows that young human children tend to avoid interacting with people who act badly toward their loved ones.
  • Dogs watch social interactions of people toward their owners and use that information to decide whom they like or should avoid.
  • The behavior of cats is unaffected by whether people act helpfully or uncooperative with their owners.
Douglas Sprott licensed CC BY 2.0
Source: Douglas Sprott licensed CC BY 2.0

There are data that suggest that dogs are continually monitoring the social interactions that their owners have with other people. More importantly, 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 a dog's loved one, they will snub or avoid that person in future interactions.

This is exactly the way that a young human child acts in similar situations. In a 2010 study, 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 preferred to give it to a person who had acted in a friendly or neutral way.

Social Eavesdropping

There is research that shows that dogs act in a similar manner. The data come 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.

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.

Other researchers have shown that dogs use that observational information to pick out which people are selfish and which are more generous. Later, when they are given an opportunity to beg for food, the dogs use that data to decide whom to approach—showing a clear preference for the more generous people. However, it was not clear to researchers whether such studies are showing that 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 seeking higher-level social information—namely trying to figure out what was happening in order to form a positive or negative opinion about the people involved.

Dogs Watch and React

In a 2015 study, the investigators avoided any complications associated with food motivation by creating a social interaction that focused on an item that is useless to dogs (a roll 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 in which the dog got to watch while its owner unsuccessfully tried to open the container that 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 that seems to have no rewards or benefits for the dog (since most dogs 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 greater 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 suggested 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.

Cats Only Watch

In a newly published investigation coming from the same laboratory, the researchers attempted to see if cats would act in the same way, discriminating between the people who were helpful and not helpful to their owner. They used a sample of 36 cats and virtually duplicated the scenarios that they had used when testing dogs. However, the results were far from the same.

The reactions of the cats toward the individual who appeared to help their owner and the individual who appeared to shun the owner were not significantly different. Although the cats appeared to be watching the interactions carefully, how their owner was treated did not seem to affect their behaviors.

These results are consistent with other studies that have shown that cat owners have a lower tendency then dog owners to regard their pets as "family members," and their cats are usually scored as significantly lower on traits including "friendly," "sympathetic," and "compassionate."

The authors suggest that these latest results might be explained by genetics and the nature of the domestication of cats. Specifically, they note the following:

Domestic cats originated from a less gregarious ancestor than did dogs, and they have not been subjected to artificial selection for cooperative work with humans.

They go on to say,

We consider that cats might not possess the same social evaluation ability as dogs, at least in this situation.

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Vaish, A., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, J. (2010). Young children selectively avoid helping people with harmful intentions. Child Development, 81, 1661–1669.

Chijiiwa, H., Kuroshima, H., Hori, Y., Anderson, J. R., & Fujita, K. (2015). Dogs avoid people who behave negatively to their owner: third-party affective evaluation. Animal Behaviour, 106, 123–127.

Chijiiwa, H., Takagi, S., Arahori, M., Anderson, J. R., Fujita, K., & Kuroshima, H. (2021). Cats (Felis catus) show no avoidance of people who behave negatively to their owner. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 8(1), 23–35.