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Can dogs use vocal intonation as a social referencing cue in an object choice task?

Abstract

Evidence from the literature indicates that dogs’ choices can be influenced by human-delivered social cues, such as pointing, and pointing combined with facial expression, intonation (i.e., rising and falling voice pitch), and/or words. The present study used an object choice task to investigate whether intonation conveys unique information in the absence of other salient cues. We removed facial expression cues and speech information by delivering cues with the experimenter’s back to the dog and by using nonword vocalizations. During each trial, the dog was presented with pairs of the following three vocal cues: Positive (happy-sounding), Negative (sad-sounding), and Breath (neutral control). In Experiment 1, where dogs received only these vocal cue pairings, dogs preferred the Positive intonation, and there was no difference in choice behavior between Negative or Breath. In Experiment 2, we included a point cue with one of the two vocal cues in each pairing. Here, dogs preferred containers receiving pointing cues as well as Negative intonation, and preference was greatest when both of these cues were presented together. Taken together, these findings indicate that dogs can indeed extract information from vocal intonation alone, and may use intonation as a social referencing cue. However, the effect of intonation on behavior appears to be strongly influenced by the presence of pointing, which is known to be a highly salient visual cue for dogs. It is possible that in the presence of a point cue, intonation may shift from informative to instructive.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We used dogs’ “first approach” in Turcsán et al. (2015) for this comparison and dogs as a group in Buttelmann and Tomasello (2013).

  2. 2.

    In these two studies, dogs chose between containers cued with a happy display and a neutral display, which is conceptually similar to the Breath control in the current study.

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Correspondence to Erin N. Colbert-White.

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Colbert-White, E.N., Tullis, A., Andresen, D.R. et al. Can dogs use vocal intonation as a social referencing cue in an object choice task?. Anim Cogn 21, 253–265 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1163-5

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Keywords

  • Dogs
  • Canis familiaris
  • Social referencing
  • Object choice task
  • Intonation
  • Pointing