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

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Is Your Dog a Social Butterfly?


Please welcome today’s guest contributor, Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, an Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. And check out Erica’s earlier DYBID post, Less Talk More Touch: What's Your Dog Saying to You?

Sandra Tilkeridisov√°, Unsplash

Hello Dog Believers! 
We dog devotees have an abundance of tales about our special relationship with our dogs. These anecdotes seem backed by the fact that dog lovers often can’t use the bathroom alone, and our dogs are incredibly excited when we come home. The good news is that science backs this up: owners do have a special relationship with their dogs. 

In my own research, I have asked dogs simple questions about their preferences. For example, I present them with two alternatives and ask, “Which do you like better?” The answer is given by the dog’s behavior—which alternative do they spend more time with, and how much more time do they spend with it? I have investigated dogs’ preferences for petting compared to food delivery, and petting compared to vocal praise. In some of this research, we observed effects of the presence of the owner, but I hadn’t looked directly into dog preference for their owners. 

To explore whether dogs display a preference for their owner, Clive Wynne and I gave dogs a similar choice: do you want petting from your owner or petting from a stranger? And does this choice differ if we ask the question in an unfamiliar setting  (an unknown laboratory room) or in a familiar setting (the dog’s home)? 

For 10 minutes each dog was free to interact with either owner or stranger (both of whom were seated), or neither. Dogs spent about 80% of the session near a person, but with whom they spent the most time differed by location: in an unfamiliar location, dogs spent significantly more time with their owner (by a 4 to 1 advantage), but in the familiar setting, they spent more time with the stranger (by a 2 to 1 advantage). Interestingly, dogs tested in the familiar location (the home) still approached their owners first—nearly 70% of the time—before then going to chill with the stranger for the rest of the session. And dogs tested in the unfamiliar location approached their owner first at an even higher rate! 


These results points to two takeaways: first, in a stressful situation—like being in a new, unfamiliar place—you are likely a comfort for your dog, and your dog would prefer to be with you over a stranger or anywhere else in the new place. Second, your dog, while certainly having a special relationship with you, is still a social butterfly and interested in meeting new people, particularly when in a comfortable setting. The suggestion of dogs’ social butterfly-ness aligns with other recent research by vonHoldt and colleagues (2017) which suggests dogs are hypersocial and that this has a genetic component.

But what about shelter dogs who don’t have an owner? Are dogs in shelters equal opportunists, splitting their time evenly between two strangers? Or, do they prefer one stranger over another? We investigated this too! Shelter dogs did show a preference for one stranger over another, and even more interestingly, the degree to which they preferred that stranger was similar in magnitude to the preference that owned dogs had showed for their owners in an unfamiliar setting! Other research has demonstrated that shelter dogs start to show attachment behaviors toward a stranger after spending just three, short 10-minute sessions together. Our data suggest this attachment might start to form even faster than that. We also tested owned dogs with two strangers and they behaved just like shelter dogs. 

Here's Sugar in the shelter at the beginning of the session... 



and Sugar later in the session...



In these experiments, we did not explore on what basis dogs made their choice. Why did dogs prefer one stranger over another? Now that we know how quickly dogs can show a preference for one person over another we can start to explore why—is their preference based on olfactory, tactile, or physical characteristics of the person? 

It’s also useful to remember that we tested socialized dogs. The shelter dogs were up for adoption, and the owned dogs were, we hoped, not dogs likely to aggress towards a stranger. We don’t know whether these results apply to dogs with more stranger-directed issues. 

In the end, though, our results bring up a few points: You do have a special relationship with your dog. This is especially evident when the dog is stressed. Understanding this has potential welfare implications for some of our practices, such as taking the dog in the back at veterinary clinics and separating the dog from the owner. Is this useful or harmful to the dog? Or are the effects of these separations owner- and dog-dependent? But we ought to start asking these questions for our dogs’ sakes. Our results also demonstrate dog hypersociability and that dogs’ can be quite socially fluid, forming many different human-dog relationships. So whether you are on the more introverted side, like yours truly, remember that you might just have to up your social game to keep up with your dog. 

Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare
Virginia Polytechnic and State University 


Reference
Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2017). Dogs don't always prefer their owners and can quickly form strong preferences for certain strangers over others. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 108(3), 305–317.