Dog Column | Social Referencing

Dog enjoying a dip in Lake Wanaka. Photo: Nikki Heath / Wanaka Sun

Wanaka Sun Dog Column by Leone Ward

Social Referencing

When we humans are unsure about a novel situation, our first response is to look around and check how others are reacting. This is called social referencing,

But do dogs also do social referencing?

A research team at the University of Milan decided to test that idea by using something that could be perceived as scary to the dogs. The outcome of that study showed that dogs do indeed look and react according to either their owner’s or a stranger’s reaction. If the reaction was positive, the dogs were then curious and relaxed about investigating further. If the human reactions were negative, the dog moved away toward the door.

Social referencing is a process that can be used to help the dog whenever it is faced with a new situation. When socialising a puppy for instance, acting positively towards new people or animals will help the puppy relax and investigate.

McKay Jetty, Lake Wanaka. Photo: Nikki Heath / Wanaka Sun

This study also points to the importance of being mindful of our reactions when in the presence of our dog. If we’re concerned about another dog walking towards us, we will inevitably convey those concerns and influence how our dog will feel about the situation. It may take only a few times before our dog starts to lunge and bark at what is now perceived as a potential threat. At that point, a jerk on the leash or a verbal reprimand will only exacerbate the problem. The strange dog will not only be associated with our anxiety, but also with the harsh treatment.

As dogs are influenced by our emotional reactions, any form of punishment, whether physical or verbal, will only make things worse. We may temporarily inhibit the dog’s lunging or barking (which unfortunately leads us to believe the treatment is working), but we have taught him/her to have negative feelings about this particular situation. Inhibiting a behaviour is not the same as treating it and the dog is likely to feel more and more stressed anytime the situation repeats itself.

In light of the results from this study, a fun and positive reaction when in the presence of anything that the dog is concerned or unsure about makes a lot of sense. If every time we see a strange dog at a distance, we giggle, talk in a high pitch tone of voice and display happy emotions, we’re helping the dog change the way he/she feels about dogs through classical conditioning. Instead of a source of anxiety, over time, dogs are viewed as fun with good things happening. If coupled with the ‘open bar’ technique where the dog is automatically given treats as soon as he sees another dog, regardless of what his/her reaction is, over time, the underlying negative emotion will be replaced with a more positive one and the initial reactivity will be replaced with wags.

Dog training is not just about rewarding or punishing a particular behaviour . Dealing with the underlying emotion that leads to the behaviour is essential to any lasting treatment. When dogs rely on our emotional reactions to assess a situation as safe, neutral or fun, it becomes even more important for us to learn how to control ourselves and how to be mindful of our own fears.

Anxiety, stress, joy, and excitement are all contagious and lead to different reactions. We hold the ability to influence how our dog feels about the world and the more confident and positive we are, the more confidence and positive curiosity the dog will develop.

For information or assistance with dog behaviour contact leone@dogszone.co.nz

Pictured: McKay Jetty, Lake Wanaka. Photo: Nikki Heath / Wanaka Sun


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