Animal Cognition

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 167–174 | Cite as

Is your choice my choice? The owners’ effect on pet dogs’ (Canis lupus familiaris) performance in a food choice task

  • E. Prato-PrevideEmail author
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
  • P. Valsecchi
Original Paper


This study investigates the influence of owners on their dogs’ performance in a food choice task using either different or equal quantities of food. Fifty-four pet dogs were tested in three different conditions. In Condition 1 we evaluated their ability to choose between a large and small amount of food (quantity discrimination task). In Condition 2 dogs were again presented with a choice between the large and small food quantity, but only after having witnessed their owner favouring the small quantity. In Condition 3 dogs were given a choice between two equally small quantities of food having witnessed their owner favouring either one or the other. A strong effect of the owner on the dogs’ performance was observed. In Condition 1 dogs as a group chose significantly more often the large food quantity, thus showing their ability to solve the quantity discrimination task. After observing their owner expressing a preference for the small food quantity they chose the large quantity of food significantly less than in the independent choice situation. The tendency to conform to the owner’s choice was higher when the dogs had to choose between equally small quantities of food (Condition 3) rather than between a large and a small one (Condition 2). These results provide evidence that dogs can be influenced by their owners even when their indications are clearly in contrast with direct perceptual information, thus leading dogs to ultimately make counterproductive choices.


Dog Dog–owner relationship Food choice task Quantity discrimination 



This research was supported by funds from the Università di Milano to Emanuela Prato-Previde, by a doctoral grant to Sarah Marshall-Pescini from the same University and by funds from Università di Parma to Paola Valsecchi. We are grateful to Marcello Cesa-Bianchi, founder of the Institute of Psychology of the University of Milan, for his longstanding support to research on animal behaviour. We thank Marco Poli for allowing us to carry out the work in the Institute of Psychology and for his continuous support, and the “Well Done Training School” and “Scuola Cinofila Viridea” for participating in the study providing help and support. A special thanks to Laura Sabbadini for her invaluable help in data collection and scoring and to Adam Miklósi for suggestions on an earlier version of the manuscript. Finally, we would like to thank all the owners and dogs that participated as volunteers. This research complies with the current Italian laws on animal welfare.


  1. Appleby D, Pluijmakers J (2003) Separation anxiety in dogs: the function of homeostasis in its development and treatment. Clin Tech Small Anim Pract 19(4):205–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bräuer J, Kaminski J, Riedel J, Call J, Tomasello M (2006) Making inferences about the location of hidden food: social dog, Causal Ape. J Comp Psychol 120(1):38–47PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cattet J, Etienne AS (2006) Blindfolded dogs relocate a target through path integration. Anim Behav 68(1):203–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Collier-Baker E, Davis JM, Suddendorf T (2004) Do dogs (Canis familiaris) understand invisible displacement? J Comp Psychol 118(4):421–433PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Coppinger R, Coppinger L (2001) Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior and evolution. Scribner, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Csányi V, Topál J, Gacsi M, Sarkozi Z (2001) Distinguishing logic from association in the solution of an invisible displacement task by children (Homo sapiens) and dogs (Canis familiaris): using negation of disjunction. J Comp Psychol 115(3):219–226PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. De Rosa C. (2007) Capacità cognitive del cane domestico (Canis familiaris): effetti dell’interazione tra apprendimento e comunicazione sociale. Doctoral Thesis, University of MilanGoogle Scholar
  8. Dumas C, Page DD (2006) Strategy planning in dogs (Canis familiaris) in a progressive elimination task. Behav Processes 73(1):22–28PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fallani G, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P (2006) Do disrupted early attachments affect the relationship between guide dogs and blind owners? Appl Anim Behav Sci 100(3–4):241–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hare B, Tomasello M (2005) Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci 9(9):439–444PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hare B, Call J, Tomasello M (1998) Communication of food location between human and dog. Evol Commun 2(1):137–159Google Scholar
  12. Hare B, Brown M, Williamson C, Tomasello M (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298(5598):1634–1636PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hsu Y, Serpell JA (2003) Development and validation of a questionnaire for measuring behavior and temperament traits in pet dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 223(9):1293–1300PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Jagoe A, Serpell JA (1996) Owner characteristics and interactions and the prevalence of canine behaviour problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci 47:31–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kaminski J, Call J, Fischer J (2004) Word learning in a domestic dog: evidence for “Fast Mapping”. Science 304:1682–1683PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kubinyi E, Topál J, Miklósi Á, Csányi V (2003) Dogs (Canis familiaris) learn from their owners via observation in a manipulation task. J Comp Psychol 117(2):156–165PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lindberg S, Strandberg E, Swenson L (2004) Genetic analysis of hunting behaviour in Swedish Flatcoated Retrievers. Appl Anim Behav Sci 88(3–4):289–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. McKinley J, Sambrook T (2000) Use of human-given cues by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 3:13–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mech L, Wolf P, Packard JM (1999) Regurgitative food transfer among wild wolves. Can J Zool 77:1192–1195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Miklósi Á, Soproni K (2006) A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture. Anim Cogn 9:81–93PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Miklósi Á, Polgárdi, Topál J, Csányi V (2000) Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: an experimental analysis of “showing” behaviour in the dog. Anim Cogn 3:159–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Miklósi Á, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Gacsi M, Virányi Z, Csányi V (2003) A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr Biol 13:763–766PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V (2004) Comparative social cognition: what can dogs teach us? Anim Behav 67:995–1004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moriguchi Y, Itakura S (2005) Does pointing comprehension disturb controlling action? Evidence from 2-year-old children. Proceedings of 4th IEEE internatinal conference on development and learning 102–105Google Scholar
  25. Osthaus B, Slater AM, Lea SEG (2003a) Can dogs defy gravity? A comparison with the human infant and a non-human primate. Dev Sci 6(5):489–497CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Osthaus B, Lea SEG, Slater AM (2003b) Training influences problem-solving abilities in dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of British Society of Animal Science, York 103Google Scholar
  27. Osthaus B, Lea SEG, Slater AM (2005) Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fail to show understanding of means-end connections in a string-pulling task. Anim Cogn 8:37–47PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Packard JM (2003) Wolf behavior: reproductive, social and intelligent. In: Mech LD, Mech LB (eds) Wolves: behavior, ecology, and conservation, The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  29. Parthasarathy V, Crowell-Davis SL (2006) Relationship between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). J Vet Behav: Clinical Appl Res 1(3):109–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Prato-Previde E, Custance DM, Spiezio C, Sabatini F (2003) Is the dog-human relationship an attachment bond? An observational study using Ainsworth’s strange situation. Behaviour 140:225–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Schleidt WM, Shalter MD (2003) Co-evolution of humans and canids an alternative view of dog domestication: homo homini lupus? Evol Cogn 9(1):57–72Google Scholar
  32. Schwab C, Huber L (2006) Obey or not obey? Dogs (Canis familiaris) behave differently in response to attentional states of their owners. J Comp Psychol 120(3):169–175PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Slabbert JM, Rasa OAE (1997) Observational learning of an acquired maternal behaviour pattern by working dog pups: an alternative training method? Appl Anim Behav Sci 53(4):309–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Soproni K, Miklósi A, Topál J, Csányi V (2001) Comprehension of human communicative signs in pet dogs (Canis familiaris). J Comp Psychol 115(2):122–126PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Soproni K, Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V (2002) Dogs’ (Canis familiaris) responsiveness to human pointing gestures. J Comp Psychol 116(1):27–34PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Szetei V, Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V (2003) When dogs seem to lose their nose: an investigation on the use of visual and olfactory cues in communicative context between dog and owner. Appl Anim Behav Sci 83:141–152CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Takeuchi Y, Ogata N, Houpt KA, Scarlett JM (2001) Differences in background and outcome of three behavior problems of dogs. Appl Anim Behav Sci 70:297–308PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Topál J, Miklósi Á, Csányi V, Dóka A (1998) Attachment behaviour in dogs (Canis familiaris): a new application of Ainsworth’s (1969) strange situation test. J Comp Psychol 112(3):219–229PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Topál J, Gácsi M, Miklósi Á, Virányi Z, Kubinyi E, Csányi V (2005) Attachment to humans: a comparative study on hand-reared wolves and differently socialized dog puppies. Anim Cogn 70:1367–1375Google Scholar
  40. Ward C, Smuts B (2006) Quantity-based judgments in the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Anim Cogn 10:71–80PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. West RE, Young RJ (2002) Do domestic dogs show any evidence of being able to count? Anim Cogn 5:183–186PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Zentall TR (2006) Imitation: definitions, evidence and mechanisms. Anim Cogn 9:335–353PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. Prato-Previde
    • 1
    Email author
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
    • 1
  • P. Valsecchi
    • 2
  1. 1.Istituto di PsicologiaUniversità di MilanoMilanItaly
  2. 2.Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e FunzionaleUniversità di ParmaParmaItaly

Personalised recommendations