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Sensing sociality in dogs: what may make an interactive robot social?


This study investigated whether dogs would engage in social interactions with an unfamiliar robot, utilize the communicative signals it provides and to examine whether the level of sociality shown by the robot affects the dogs’ performance. We hypothesized that dogs would react to the communicative signals of a robot more successfully if the robot showed interactive social behaviour in general (towards both humans and dogs) than if it behaved in a machinelike, asocial way. The experiment consisted of an interactive phase followed by a pointing session, both with a human and a robotic experimenter. In the interaction phase, dogs witnessed a 6-min interaction episode between the owner and a human experimenter and another 6-min interaction episode between the owner and the robot. Each interaction episode was followed by the pointing phase in which the human/robot experimenter indicated the location of hidden food by using pointing gestures (two-way choice test). The results showed that in the interaction phase, the dogs’ behaviour towards the robot was affected by the differential exposure. Dogs spent more time staying near the robot experimenter as compared to the human experimenter, with this difference being even more pronounced when the robot behaved socially. Similarly, dogs spent more time gazing at the head of the robot experimenter when the situation was social. Dogs achieved a significantly lower level of performance (finding the hidden food) with the pointing robot than with the pointing human; however, separate analysis of the robot sessions suggested that gestures of the socially behaving robot were easier for the dogs to comprehend than gestures of the asocially behaving robot. Thus, the level of sociality shown by the robot was not enough to elicit the same set of social behaviours from the dogs as was possible with humans, although sociality had a positive effect on dog–robot interactions.

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This study was supported by grants received from the European Union (EU FP7 ICT: Living with robots and interactive companions, LIREC 215554) and the ESF Research Networking Programme “CompCog”: The Evolution of Social Cognition ( (06-RNP-020). Support for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group (01 031) is also acknowledged. We are grateful for the invaluable assistance of Valéria Ferenc and Anna Bálint, and András Péter for the behavioural coding software. We are also very grateful to C. P. West and J. Hecht for correcting the English of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gabriella Lakatos.

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Lakatos, G., Janiak, M., Malek, L. et al. Sensing sociality in dogs: what may make an interactive robot social?. Anim Cogn 17, 387–397 (2014).

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  • Dogs
  • Robots
  • Third-party interactions
  • Pointing