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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


8 January 2018

The owner’s behavior: The elusive puzzle piece in dog-human relationships

Please welcome today’s guest contributor, Giulia Cimarelli, a researcher at the Unit of Comparative Cognition and at the Wolf Science Center of the Messerli Research Institute (Vienna, Austria).

Adam Griffith, Unsplash
When considering the dog-human bond, it’s pretty easy to agree that how we behave can influence dogs. We influence how they perceive and respond to situations and this can inform what they might expect from us in the future. This, of course, goes both ways. For example, if a dog is supported by an owner during a stressful situation, the dog could feel less stressed in a similar situation in the future. 

But of course, social relationships are complicated. Many factors are involved, like the personality and upbringing of both individuals and the social context in which the relationship develops. For decades, scientists from different disciplines have tried to understand and describe the relationships that humans and non-human animals build with one another. Today, there is general agreement that both parties influence one another.

When I first became interested in how human behavior influences dogs, I found that most existing research was based on questionnaires. Being an ethologist (a scientist who studies animal behavior), I wanted to examine owner behavior as I saw it, not just as people reported it. Professionals who work with dogs and their people probably know that people are not always aware of how they behave with their dogs, even though most people seem aware that dogs can respond to subtle human behaviors.
Giulia and dog friend

To understand how owners influence their dogs, we need to see what owners really do. And not only during training sessions. Life is so much more than training! I wanted to see how owners interact with their dogs in everyday situations, both positive and possibly negative. 

With this aim in mind, my colleagues and I at the Clever Dog Lab (Vienna, Austria) invited owners and their pet dogs to our lab to participate in a test that we called the “Owner Interaction Style test”. The experiment consisted of 8 different scenarios where we let the owner and their dog interact with one another. These scenarios were meant to recreate real life situations, but in a controlled environment. For example, we asked owners to leave the dog alone for a few minutes, and then we analyzed how they would greet their dog when they returned. We also asked owners to play “fetch” and “tug-of-war” with their dog, to teach them how to open a bin to retrieve food, and to perform basic obedience behaviors (i.e. sit, lay down, and stay) while an unfamiliar person attempted to distract the dog (i.e. by pretending to look for something in a box full of crumbled newspapers). We also saw how owners behaved when their dog was dealing with a potentially stressful situation (i.e. if the dog’s movements were restricted like during a vet examination). 

In each test we kept track of how many times the owner gave commands, praised, petted, clapped, or whistled to the dog. We also assessed how warm, enthusiastic, and supportive owners were, or if they were cold, authoritarian, or avoidant when interacting with their dog.

We found that owner behavior varies across 3 factors: 1) warmth in positive situations like play, teaching, and greeting, 2) social support in potentially stressful situations, and 3) behavioral control. 

Interestingly, these factors are very similar to those observed in human psychology studies when describing how parents interact with their children, possibly because humans have a general way of interacting with individuals they are caring for. 

Below is a short video of the study in action.

We also wanted to see if the way owners generally behaved with their dog would influence their dog's behavior in a stressful situation. Would dogs behave similar to children? Research has shown that when the parent is helpful and supportive, the child will trust and seek help and support from the parent in the future.

To answer to this question, we conducted a test that you should NOT try at home: owner and dog participants were approached by an unfamiliar person in a threatening way (i.e. stepping slowly toward the dog, with the upper torso bent forward, and staring into the dog’s eyes). In this test, the owner was told not to interact with their dog so that the dog’s reaction would not be influenced by the owner’s current response. Instead, we wanted to see whether the dog’s reaction related to how the owner had previously interacted with the dog, as analyzed in the previous study (warmth, social support, or control). We assumed that because of previous experiences, dogs will know how their owner will behave.

Indeed, we found that dogs’ reactions, either approaching the unfamiliar person independently or remaining close to their owner, depended on how warm the owner had been during the interaction style test described earlier. In particular, dogs who stayed close to their owner had warmer owners than those dogs who reacted more independently. 

Our study suggests that dogs are influenced by how their owner interacts with them outside of training situations. How enthusiastic, warm, and present we are in the everyday lives of our dogs can influence how our four-legged companions rely on us in stressful situations. 

This is important because sometimes people focus too much on training and forget that everything we do can matter. Whenever we interact with our dogs, we are telling them who we are, what we are for them, and whether they can count on us.  

Giulia Cimarelli, researcher at the Unit of Comparative Cognition and at the Wolf Science Center of the Messerli Research Institute (Vienna, Austria).

Cimarelli, G., Turcsán, B., Bánlaki, Z., Range, F., and Virányi, Z. (2016). Dog Owners’ Interaction Styles: Their Components and Associations with Reactions of Pet Dogs to a Social Threat. Front. Psychol. 7, 1979.

Cimarelli, G., Turcsán, B., Range, F., and Virányi, Z. (2017). The Other End of the Leash: An Experimental Test to Analyze How Owners Interact with Their Pet Dogs. J. Vis. Exp., 1–11.
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