A plastic bag skirts down the street. The subway rumbles down below. A person pushing a walker trudges along. If you're a dog, the flying plastic bag, rumbling subway and even the walker might fall in the category of scary. Or maybe they're no problem. In situations like these, whether a dog expresses fear and hesitancy or interest and investigation can depend on how you behave. A few years back, researchers began studying whether dogs engage in social referencing, something humans do from a very early age. This animal cognition question is also relevant to how we interact with our companion dogs.

Social referencing is "the seeking of information from another individual to form one’s own understanding and guide action." Here's how it might play out: let's say you've never seen a World Wrestling Federation match and the first time you watch it on TV, you're all alone. Since the camera isn't panning the crowd, you're just watching the wrestlers. In this context, you might think, "Gosh. These people are going to kill each other." But, if you were at the arena and able to observe the crowd, their behavior and facial expressions would tip you off that it's actually all fun and games.

Infants will look toward their parent when encountering something ambiguous or somewhat frightening. If the parent communicates happiness and interest, through facial expressions or body language, the infant will be more likely to do the same. If the parent shows the opposite emotions or behaviors, they can also be reflected in the infant. In its most basic form, social referencing is a handy survival tool, particularly when we need to assess what's safe or unsafe. And now, we all must watch this incredibly cute video of a baby engaging in social referencing with his mother:

But what about dogs? In 2012, Isabella Merola and colleagues Emanuela Prato-Previde and Sarah Marshall-Pescini published a study in Animal Cognition investigating whether dogs engage in social referencing with their owners. As part of the experimental design, they first had to decide on an object that might elicit a "mild fear response" (similar to how social referencing has been investigated in infants). The researchers went with this mighty interesting object that I like to call the Crazy Green Monster. To build a Crazy Green Monster, take an electric fan, attach plastic green ribbons, turn it on, and voila!

The Crazy Green Monster was just one of the stars of the social referencing study. The other big player was the owner, who entered a room with the dog, encountered the Crazy Green Monster, and then behaved in prescribed ways so the researchers could investigate the following three questions:

  1. Do dogs engage in social referencing toward their owner when they come across an ambiguous situation or object?

  2. Does the owner's emotional expression (happy or fearful) affect how the dog behaves?

  3. Does the owner's behavior (approach or avoidance) affect the dog's behavior?

To the first question: Yup! Dogs engage in social referencing toward their owners. In this study, 83% of the dogs showed referential looking, as in "they looked to the fan and immediately after to their owner." (If dogs could talk, I imagine they would offer some choice words about being put in a room with the Crazy Green Monster). In this way, dogs were similar to human infants as well as human-raised chimpanzees who overwhelmingly engaged in social referencing toward their human caregivers.

Second, your emotional expressions matter. In the study, dogs whose owners communicated negative voice and facial expression were more likely to assume a static posture, like standing, sitting or lying. This is similar to what's observed in infants, where negative emotional expressions inhibit movement and exploration. A follow-up study* published open access in PLOS One, found that dogs receiving a positive emotional message from their owners -- through both voice and facial expressions -- were more likely to approach and spend time in the vicinity of the Crazy Green Monster.

Lastly, the owners' actual behavior greatly contributed to whether or not dogs approached the Crazy Green Monster. Dogs who saw their owners turn their back on the Crazy Green Monster -- while still conveying negative emotions -- kept their distance. On the other hand, dogs who saw their owners getting to know the Crazy Green Monster -- touching the fan and the ribbons -- moved closer to it.

Social Referencing, What Dogs Do

Many companion dogs engage in social referencing, particularly when they come across something that's kinda wonky or ambiguous. Great. That's Step 1. Step 2 is all about you. Both your behavior (approach / avoidance) and emotional expression (facial expressions and tone-of-voice) could affect your dog's interpretation. While your dog will probably never encounter the Crazy Green Monster from the study, each dog has his or her own personalized version of what is a Crazy Green Monster. So toss them a bone; help them check it out and learn that it's okay.**

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* Interestingly, in the initial study, the positive emotional expression (talking in a happy voice and smiling) did not increase dog approach to the Crazy Green Monster. The researchers suggested that this could be because the methodology slightly deviated from the design of infant social referencing studies. For example, in the infant studies, mothers deliver the positive message as soon as the child looks at them. In the current study, when the dogs initially looked toward the owner, the owner did not provide any emotional response. The researchers did this for a reason -- they were trying to begin the study by investigating whether dogs simply engage in social referencing. But, the researchers suggest, the lack of immediate emotional response from the human might have confused the dog.

** What do you do if you're a researcher who has exposed dogs to a somewhat frightening stimulus? When the study's over, you make sure they don't leave the study afraid. "After the test ended the experimenter went out of the room to get some pieces of food, and together with the owner sat next to the fan, giving the dog treats when it came in proximity of the fan. All dogs received this treatment so that they would not become sensitive to fans."

Recommended reading on social referencing

Jennifer Cattet. Social referencing: we influence how our dog sees the world. Smart Animal Training.

Stanley Coren. Your Dog Watches You and Interprets Your Behavior. Canine Corner, Psychology Today.

Zazie Todd. Social Referencing in Dogs. Companion Animal Psychology.

Image: A fan with plastic green ribbons (aka the Crazy Green Monster) via Merola et al., 2012


Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012) Social referencing in dog-owner dyads? Animal Cognition 15, 175-185.

Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012) Dogs' Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47653.