Learning & Behavior

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 414–429 | Cite as

What influences a pet dog’s first impression of a stranger?

  • Jingzhi TanEmail author
  • Kara K. Walker
  • Katherine Hoff
  • Brian Hare


Dogs live in the dynamic human social networks full of strangers, yet they form strong and selective bonds with familiar caretakers. Little is known about how a bond is initially formed between a dog and a complete stranger. The first-impression hypothesis suggests that interacting with strangers can present an opportunity to form a mutualistic partnership. It predicts that dogs should respond positively toward a complete stranger to facilitate bonding (Prediction 1) and adjust their preferences in response to the perceived risk and benefit of interacting with strangers (Prediction 2). We examine the social preferences of pet dogs toward a complete stranger whom they have never met before and several other potential partners – the owner with whom subjects have had a positive, long-term bond (Experiment 1), and an exposed stranger with whom they have had a positive short-term interaction (Experiment 2) or a negative one (Experiment 3). In support of Prediction 1, subjects were exceptionally trusting across contexts. Mixed results were found with regard to Prediction 2. Subjects preferred their owner over a stranger when following social cues and (to a lesser degree) when approaching and feeding in close proximity. However, relative to a complete stranger, subjects did not consistently prefer the positively exposed stranger or avoid the negatively exposed one. The lack of clear selectivity might be due to pet dogs’ high baseline level of trust of complete strangers or reflect the strength of their existing bonds that negated the need for another positive bond with a new human partner.


comparative cognition avoidance 



We thank S. Kapil, Z. Best and C. Cáceres, in addition to all members of the Duke Canine Cognition Center for assistance with data collection, testing, and coding.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (XLSX 17 kb)
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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of California at San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Evolutionary AnthropologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  4. 4.Triangle Veterinary Referral HospitalDurhamUSA
  5. 5.Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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