Animal Cognition

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 175–185 | Cite as

Social referencing in dog-owner dyads?

  • I. Merola
  • E. Prato-Previde
  • S. Marshall-PesciniEmail author
Original Paper


Social referencing is the seeking of information from another individual to form one’s own understanding and guide action. In this study, adult dogs were tested in a social referencing paradigm involving their owner and a potentially scary object. Dogs received either a positive or negative message from the owner. The aim was to evaluate the presence of referential looking to the owner, behavioural regulation based on the owner’s (vocal and facial) emotional message and observational conditioning following the owner’s actions towards the object. Most dogs (83%) looked referentially to the owner after looking at the strange object, thus they appear to seek information about the environment from the human, but little differences were found between dogs in the positive and negative groups as regards behavioural regulation: possible explanations for this are discussed. Finally, a strong effect of observational conditioning was found with dogs in the positive group moving closer to the fan and dogs in the negative group moving away, both mirroring their owner’s behaviour. Results are discussed in relation to studies on human–dog communication, attachment and social learning.


Social-referencing Referential looking Behavioural regulation Dogs Gaze alternation Social learning 



This research was supported by a PhD and post-doctoral grant from Milan University to Isabella Merola and Sarah Marshall-Pescini. A special thanks to Lara Tomaleo and Chiara Passalacqua for their invaluable help in data collection and scoring and to referees and Paola Valsecchi for insightful comments on 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.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • I. Merola
    • 1
  • E. Prato-Previde
    • 1
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Dipartimento di Scienze e Tecnologie Biomediche, Sezione di Psicologia, Facoltà di MedicinaUniversità di MilanoSegrateItaly

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