Social Referencing In Dogs! Dog Behaviorist in Northern Virginia

How often have we been placed in an ambiguous situation where we don’t know how to react. We take a cue from other people’s responses (in the hope that they are more experienced) and behave just as they do. This is called ‘social referencing’ and is very apparent in young children who are faced with a novel situation and don’t know how to act. Unconsciously they look around and do what the other toddlers and kids are doing. Fair enough, considering that no-one (even kids) want to make a fool of themselves.

Psychologists have observed that dogs too behave the same way as young human children do, when they’re unsure of how they have to act. When children encounter something new, they look at the parent or caregiver and at the new object of concern. The child takes a cue from the behavior or attitude of the person according to whether they react positively or negatively. Dogs too can apparently distinguish facial expressions and are rather sensitive to voice, and like humans, dogs cannot help but imitate what they see.

They look from their owners’ faces to the new object of concern back and forth, trying to attract them to it. Depending on the owner’s emotional response and vocal expressions, dogs would decide whether to react positively, negatively or ignore the whole thing.

As it was found that social referencing occurred only in an uncertain situation, researchers created one in the form of an oscillating fan with plastic streamers attached to it. When the fan was switched on, the streamers were blown by the air current and they flapped about in all directions. When a dog was made to enter the room, it stopped short and looked askance at the strange gadget. The sound that the motor produced and the flapping of streamers were something that it had never encountered before. Although the dog was free to move about the room, it just sat there looking at its owner and the fan alternately, trying to make sense of the new object by getting the owner’s response to it.

Dogs are extremely sensitive to responses from their owners and if the owner was vehement about the new object, the dog tended to stay put, but if the owner didn’t seem to mind, the dog didn’t either—it moved about cautiously but was apparently not very much put out by the presence of something strange. It did however look to the owner now and then acting as if it were mildly concerned.

All this seems to suggest that dogs are very much like small kids, who react to the unknown by looking up to their parents or whomever they are with to help them make sense of something they’ve never seen before. Dogs too take their cue from their owners and respond in accordance with their human companions’ emotional behavior.

In short, dogs like kids are watching how your react to everything around you and take their cue from the kind of behavior that they see and the kind of response that they get. Dogs trust their owners and do as they do.

The late Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” that apparently includes dogs too as dogs can learn simply by behaving and copying humans.

If you are interested in learning more about your dog, their behaviors, or training; contact us at Off Leash K9 Training.

http://www.offleashk9training.com/ or 888-413-0896 or info@offleashk9training.com

Nick White
Owner/Founder
Off Leash K9 Training

Leave a Reply