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My owner, right or wrong: the effect of familiarity on the domestic dog’s behavior in a food-choice task


Dogs are strongly influenced by human behavior, and they readily form bonds with specific humans. Yet these lines of inquiry are not often combined. The goal of this study was to investigate whether such bonds would play a role in how dogs behave in response to human signals. Using various types of signals, we compared dogs’ use of information from a familiar human (their owner) versus an unfamiliar human when choosing between two food containers. In some conditions, the owner indicated a container that gave food and a stranger indicated a container that did not; in other conditions, this was reversed. Dogs more often chose the container indicated by or nearest to their owner, even when this container never yielded a food reward. In two conditions, dogs chose at chance: a control condition in which both pointers were strangers and a condition in which the owner and stranger sat reading books and provided no social signal. This is the first study to directly compare owners to strangers in a single food-choice situation. Our results suggest that dogs make decisions by attending preferentially to social signals from humans with whom they have become familiar.

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We thank Kelly Dunbar, Sierra Eisen, Desiree Rogers, Susan Iyican, Anna Waismeyer, Mikel Delgado, and Aryn Hervel. We also thank the Committee on Research at the University of California, Berkeley; our dog participants and their people; and the University of California Chancellor’s Fellowship awarded to AC.

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Correspondence to Amy Cook.



List of breeds.

French Bulldog.

Golden Retriever.

Labrador Retriever mix.


Australian Cattle Dog mix.

Whippet mix.

German Shepherd.

Boston Terrier.

Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Australian Cattle Dog.

Australian Shepherd Labrador Retriever.

Mexican Hairless.

Rhodesian Ridgeback mix.

Rottweiler mix.

American Pit Bull Terrier mix.

Jack Russell Terrier mix.

Belgian Malinois.

Bearded Collie.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Cardigan Welsh Corgi.

Unidentifiable mixed breed.

We declare that these experiments comply with the current laws of the USA.

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Cook, A., Arter, J. & Jacobs, L.F. My owner, right or wrong: the effect of familiarity on the domestic dog’s behavior in a food-choice task. Anim Cogn 17, 461–470 (2014).

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  • Domestic dog
  • Pointing
  • Canis familiaris
  • Social cognition
  • Attachment