When we’re unsure about a novel situation, our first response is to look around and check how others are reacting. This behavior is easy to spot when watching hidden camera TV shows where a person faced with an ambiguous situation will look for other people’s responses. Called social referencing, this behavior allows us to avoid making costly mistakes by relying on the experience of others around us. Many studies have shown social referencing in toddlers (Walden & al., 1988; de Rosnay & al., 2006), but could our dogs do the same? It’s quite obvious when living with a dog that they pick up on our emotions and can learn how to anticipate our reactions. Research is now proving that our emotions and behavior directly influences how they may feel and react in a new situation. If we express concern, excitement and/or joy, they’ll be likely to do the same. The effectiveness of the ‘Jolly routine’, introduced by William Campbell, has now found new scientific backing.
Social referencing defines the act of using someone’s emotional state as a cue to react to a new situation. It makes total sense that instead of learning everything through trial and error, we take guidance from others. The same process is involved when mimicking somebody else’s actions to learn a new skill. Social referencing is a two-step process. First we’ll look back and forth between the object of concern and the informant (the person we’re taking our emotional cues from). Second, we’ll change our behavior according to whether the person is reacting positively or negatively to the presented novelty. Toddlers will interact with a new toy faster if the emotional reaction of their caregiver is positive. On the other hand, if their caregiver reacts negatively to the toy, they will be hesitant in playing with it and will pay more attention and move closer to their caregiver. Since this behavior has been shown equally towards a familiar caregiver or a stranger, this behavior is not intended to seek comfort but mostly to gather information about the circumstances.
Dogs have been proven capable to discriminate between people’s facial expressions (Deputte & al., 2011), understand pointing gestures (Hare & al., 2002) and to be sensitive the person’s friendly vs harsh tone of voice (Fukusawa & al., 2005). Dogs have also shown the ability to mimic certain movements that humans make and will try to replicate certain hand movements with their paw or mouth movements with their muzzle (such as yawning) (Range & al., 2007). It therefore makes sense to infer that they’re also likely to use emotional cues in the same way we would when assessing a new or concerning stimulus.
A research team of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Milan (Merola & al., 2012), decided to test that idea. The owners, along with a stranger, brought the dog into a room. Once the door was closed, a fan with green ribbons attached to it, was turned on. Most dogs were worried about the flapping plastic ribbons, but not afraid. As soon as the dog looked at their owner, he/she would act positively towards the fan, saying words like ‘that’s so beautiful’ or negatively, saying phrases like ‘that’s ugly’ or ‘that’s scary’. The same situation was repeated while the owner was simply sitting on a chair reading a book and the stranger was the one reacting to the fan. Interestingly, the dogs looked both at the owner or the stranger for emotional guidance, confirming that dogs too rely on social referencing when assessing a new situation. The dogs also reacted differently depending on the human’s positive or negative response to the fan. When the person acted positively, the dogs either carried on their exploration of the room or moved closer to the fan. The effects of the positive reaction however were much stronger when displayed by the owner. On the other hand, if the reaction was negative, the dogs tended to freeze in place or spend more time closer to the door. In this case, very little difference was shown whether the reaction came from the owner or from the stranger.
Social referencing is a process that can be used to help the dog whenever faced with a new situation. When socializing a puppy for instance, acting positively towards new people or animals will help the pup relax and investigate. This study also points to the importance of being mindful of our reactions when in presence of our dog. If we’re concerned about another dog walking towards us, we will inevitably convey those concerns and influence how our dog will feel about the situation. It may only take a few times before our dog starts to lunge and bark at what is now perceived as a potential threat. At that point, a jerk on the leash or a verbal reprimand will only exacerbate the problem. The strange dog will not only be associated with our anxiety, but also with the harsh treatment.
If our dog is influenced by our emotional reactions, any form of punishment, whether physical or verbal will only make things worse. We may temporarily inhibit the dog’s lunging or barking (which unfortunately leads us to believe the treatment is working), but we taught him/her to have negative feelings about this particular situation. Inhibiting a behavior is not the same as treating it and the dog is likely to feel more and more stressed anytime the situation repeats itself. The ‘jolly routine’, that consists of displaying a fun and positive reaction when in presence of anything that the dog is concerned or unsure about, makes a lot of sense in light of the results from this study. If every time we see a strange dog at a distance, we giggle, talk in a high pitch tone of voice and display happy emotions, we’re helping the dog change the way he/she feels about dogs through classical conditioning. Instead of a source of anxiety, over time, dogs are viewed as fun with good things happening. If coupled with the ‘open bar’ technique where the dog is automatically given treats as soon as he sees another dog, regardless of what his/her reaction is, over time, the underlying negative emotion will be replaced with a more positive one and the initial reactivity will be replaced with wags. It’s also a great strategy to apply whenever we’re caught off guard and can’t get more distance fast enough to avoid a reaction from our dog. For better efficiency however, staying under threshold is highly recommended.
Dog training is not just about rewarding or punishing a particular behavior. Dealing with the underlying emotion that leads to the behavior is essential to any lasting treatment. When dogs rely on our emotional reactions to assess a situation as safe, neutral or fun, it becomes even more important for us to learn how to control ourselves, how to be mindful of our own fears. Anxiety, stress, joy and excitement are all contagious and lead to different reactions. We hold the ability to influence how our dog feels about the world and the more confident and positive we are, the more confidence and positive curiosity the dog will develop.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
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