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Oxytocin enhances the appropriate use of human social cues by the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in an object choice task

An Erratum to this article was published on 19 April 2015

Abstract

It has been postulated that the neuropeptide, oxytocin, is involved in human–dog bonding. This may explain why dogs, compared to wolves, are such good performers on object choice tasks, which test their ability to attend to, and use, human social cues in order to find hidden food treats. The objective of this study was to investigate the effect of intranasal oxytocin administration, which is known to increase social cognition in humans, on domestic dogs’ ability to perform such a task. We hypothesised that dogs would perform better on the task after an intranasal treatment of oxytocin. Sixty-two (31 males and 31 females) pet dogs completed the experiment over two different testing sessions, 5–15 days apart. Intranasal oxytocin or a saline control was administered 45 min before each session. All dogs received both treatments in a pseudo-randomised, counterbalanced order. Data were collected as scores out of ten for each of the four blocks of trials in each session. Two blocks of trials were conducted using a momentary distal pointing cue and two using a gazing cue, given by the experimenter. Oxytocin enhanced performance using momentary distal pointing cues, and this enhanced level of performance was maintained over 5–15 days time in the absence of oxytocin. Oxytocin also decreased aversion to gazing cues, in that performance was below chance levels after saline administration but at chance levels after oxytocin administration.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the Clear Dog Shop and Love’ em for sponsoring the study and providing dog food rewards. We would also like to thank Lachlan Macquarie, Department of Econometrics and Business Statistics, Monash University, for his statistical advice.

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Correspondence to J. L. Oliva.

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Oliva, J.L., Rault, JL., Appleton, B. et al. Oxytocin enhances the appropriate use of human social cues by the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) in an object choice task. Anim Cogn 18, 767–775 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-015-0843-7

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Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Cues
  • Dog
  • Oxytocin
  • Social