Social Referencing Behavior in Dogs

Kate at the dog show

Can your dog sense if you are uncomfortable around a certain person or stranger? I have heard the statement on many occasions that ‘If my dog doesn’t like you, then neither do I.’ And it is one I have always endorsed. If you have ever walked your dog and encountered someone that made you feel uneasy, you have probably observed that your dog has shown a similar reaction.

A study led by Charlotte Duranton of Marseille University and published in the journal Animal Behaviour finds that dogs can indeed read our social clues. The behavior is called “Social Referencing” which means using someone’s emotional state as a cue to react to a new situation. It allows us to avoid making costly mistakes by relying on the experience of others around us.  This behavior is exhibited in human babies and young children who look to their parents for a reaction upon meeting someone new.

Other studies by Merola and colleagues found similar reactions in infants and animals. “Dogs use gaze to look at a person for information when they are faced with something they are unsure about, and their subsequent behaviour is based on the person’s reaction.” [source]

Clearly this research shows that dogs are sensitive creatures that pick up clues quickly. A dog’s natural instinct is to serve and protect the human that loves him. These finding can help us to understand our dog’s behavior better as well as our own. And perhaps improve training skills for both human and dog.

When I first entered the dog show ring many years ago, I was always nervous when I had to interact with the judge, someone who was always a stranger to me.

Of course my dogs would pick up on my discomfort and would also be nervous. My first show dog, Kate, unfortunately had to deal with my trembling hands and inexperience. Somehow we managed to get by and we both improved with practice. But I knew she was reacting to me, feeling my vibes so to speak.

These days with years of experience and training I have learned to how to deal with nerves and how to better train my dogs.

Once again research has shown us dog owners what we already knew, dogs are amazing animals. Can they read our minds? Well, I wouldn’t say they actually posses the powers of telepathy. But maybe when talking about your best furry friend or in some cases a “mini-me” we might be splitting hairs. They do have the tools to know what we are thinking and sense how we feel. And in my book, that is as good as a magic power!



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