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PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e47653. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047653. Epub 2012 Oct 11.

Dogs' social referencing towards owners and strangers.

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  • 1Section of Psychology, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Technologies, University of Milan, Milan, Italy.


Social referencing is a process whereby an individual uses the emotional information provided by an informant about a novel object/stimulus to guide his/her own future behaviour towards it. In this study adult dogs were tested in a social referencing paradigm involving a potentially scary object with either their owner or a stranger acting as the informant and delivering either a positive or negative emotional message. The aim was to evaluate the influence of the informant's identity on the dogs' referential looking behaviour and behavioural regulation when the message was delivered using only vocal and facial emotional expressions. Results show that most dogs looked referentially at the informant, regardless of his/her identity. Furthermore, when the owner acted as the informant dogs that received a positive emotional message changed their behaviour, looking at him/her more often and spending more time approaching the object and close to it; conversely, dogs that were given a negative message took longer to approach the object and to interact with it. Fewer differences in the dog's behaviour emerged when the informant was the stranger, suggesting that the dog-informant relationship may influence the dog's behavioural regulation. Results are discussed in relation to studies on human-dog communication, attachment, mood modification and joint attention.

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