Social referencing: we influence how our dog sees the world

3 dogs looking at personWhen 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., 1988de 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.

Puppy & manA 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.

Dog and manIf 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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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog/human relationship, emotions, Fear, Psychology, science
10 comments on “Social referencing: we influence how our dog sees the world
  1. This is good information. Many people don’t realize how much their stress or fear is sensed by their dog. I often have to take the leash from a person during introductions in class because the person is too tense and cannot give the dog a loose leash.

  2. Sandy Kerr says:

    Jennifer must have had our Great Pyr, Belle, in mind when she spoke of dogs lunging to get to another dog when walking. I’ll heed her advice to see if Belle’s behavior improves.

  3. While often true, it may not be the entire story. I’ve seen shelters try placing problem dogs next to well behaved ones, and that rarely has any effect. My own dog often follows all that you wrote. However, two current fosters will not at all. They lack sufficient comprehension and motivation (ferals) to do so, and simple reward training (of any type) is of limited use.

    For some dogs who lunge at others your approach is just fine. But for the failures you really need to stop and do some structured tests to determine just why that behavior is so persistent. In some cases you need slow desensitizing, in others out-of-context training of an alternate behavior which is transferred to the problem situation is the fastest and most efficient method, as it gives the dog rules to follow that he learned while not too excited to listen. Once he knows those rules, your behavior and attitude in any situation will have far more effect on him.

    • You are right to point out that it’s not the only way to affect behavior. When a particular behavior has been practiced for any length of time, desensitization and counter-conditioning are required. The goal of this post was mostly to point out the importance of our own emotions on our dog’s reactions to different situations.
      Here are other posts that go a little more into details of what you are bringing up:

      • Agreed. My point was that, unless other issues/situations/approaches are referenced or even just indicated, most people tend to just read a solution and, if that doesn’t work, may not take it further, even though any particular post has to be limited in space and scope. As you pointed out in that reference to the doorway issue (fear untreated), if the simple approach doesn’t quickly start to help them you need to start looking further to find the real issue in order to understand what the dog needs. While many turn out simple, some of the dogs that come here for rehab may need up to 3 days of assessment and testing before the issues are well enough understood to begin rehab. The testing includes exposure to a wide variety of common stimuli, as these are mainly unadoptable dogs with serious behavior issues.

        Back to your article, I’ve been running dog play groups at a local municipal for some time. Many dogs have never been in a play group before, and some of them are good examples of your social referencing, with both other dogs and people guiding the play groups. These are the dogs who are generally the easiest to teach and manage.

  4. Jenny H says:

    I’ve never been a fan of “The Jolly Routine”. It actually tends to make my (many) dogs more hyper. Not good thing for them, me or the other thing.

    I have found that calm behaviour, matter of factly telling the dog what it is then carryng on as though it is not there works FAR FAR better.

    (Maybe though this is more a factor of my normal behaviour? I am not one to show
    frenetic happiness. “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness– Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” is much more my idea of happiness — contentment. If I started with a “Jolly Routine” my dogs would know something was extremely wrong!)

    When the dog is really freaking out I find that Paul Owens’ “Complete Breathing” exercise works wonders. It also works wonders for me when I am freaking out 🙂

    • That’s interesting. I have used and taught the jolly routine to hundreds of people, including prisoners, and have had great success with it. I haven’t seen it get the dogs hyper. It works especially well when you first notice that the dog is concerned or on alert (stiffness, intense stare, etc…). The difference could be in the application so defining the jolly routine may be the key.

      What I really like about it, is that it also provides something to focus on doing to the owners, vs tensing and adding to the anxiety.

      Breathing is always a good thing :).

  5. Amber says:

    Dogs are so smart and can read people so easily! This is a great post — thank you!

  6. Sandy Kerr says:

    When walking with Belle, her behavior has improved by positive remarks by me about the oncoming dog. I learned that I must be relaxed & speak with a higher pitched voice as soon as I see the approaching dog. She still tenses a bit but is no longer lunging.

  7. We have a big family dog at home.On a daily basis, my father takes him out twice a day for a walk. I on the other hand only get to pet him in the evening after work. And the rest of my family seldom pays him attention.I have made an observation with our dog. Whenever he exhibits nonsensical behavior, I quickly reprimand him to stop but he isn’t quick to listen. He hears me and stops for a brief moment and then continues. But when my father and brother says “Stop” he instantly stays quiet and then behave. I don’t know why he listens to my brother whom he has not bonded with but after reading this post I know the difference now. I tend to be casual in attempting to correct his behavior. Now I need to be assertive just like my father and brother.

7 Pings/Trackbacks for "Social referencing: we influence how our dog sees the world"
  1. […] observing humans? We already know that dogs can respond to pointing gestures or that through social referencing they will adapt how they feel about a situation based on our reactions. So why not consider that we […]

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  5. […] The use of social referencing to talk about the cognitive capacity of dogs is a paradigm transplante…. In this literature, the term “social referencing” describes the two-step process by which infants use the emotional vocal and facial displays of an adult to guide their behavior toward environmental objects, persons or situations. In step one, the infant looks back and forth between the stimulus of concern and the informant (the adult from whom the infant is taking her emotional cues). In step two, the infant changes her behavior toward the concerning stimulus according to whether the informant reacted positively or negatively to it. […]

  6. […] The use of social referencing to talk about the cognitive capacity of dogs is a paradigm transplante…. In this literature, the term “social referencing” describes the two-step process by which infants use the emotional vocal and facial displays of an adult to guide their behavior toward environmental objects, persons or situations. In step one, the infant looks back and forth between the stimulus of concern and the informant (the adult from whom the infant is taking her emotional cues). In step two, the infant changes her behavior toward the concerning stimulus according to whether the informant reacted positively or negatively to it. […]

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