Investigating canine research: Are our dogs spying on us?

Social eavesdropping in the domestic dog
Animal Behaviour (2011) 81, 1177-1183
S. Marshall-Pescini, C. Passalacqua, A. Ferrario, P. Valsecchi, E. Prato-Previde

What could they be taking in? Image by Maggie Smith

Study Objectives: 
Humans learn information about one another through social eavesdropping — we gather information by observing interactions between other people. If I see that a particular ice cream scooper is giving out bigger scoops than the others, I will definitely situate myself to get served by the big scooper!

Researchers wondered if dogs take part in social eavesdropping as well.

In the study Social eavesdropping in the domestic dog researchers asked if dogs could distinguish between generous and selfish human food-sharers by observing third-party interactions.

Experimental Design:
In this study, dogs watched as a human beggar approached people (donors) who either acted selfishly or generously. The donors were seated across from one another and each held a bowl with one compartment containing strong smelling sausage and another compartment containing cereal. A human beggar approached the donors and begged for food. Dogs watched as the generous donor gave food to the human beggar whereas the selfish donor refused.

Schematic depiction of the experimental set-up. Marshall-Pescini paper

Then the dogs were tested. The selfish and generous donors sat across from one another, and the dog was allowed to approach either donor. The researchers observed which human donor the dog approached.

As part of the study, the researchers investigated which types of human communicative cues dogs might be attending to in third-party interactions. Some dogs saw the donors just using gestures to communicate their generous or selfish nature; other dogs were exposed to donors just using their voice and other dogs saw both visual and verbal cues together.

The study also exposed a group of dogs to a “ghost scenario”. The dogs in this group saw donors playing the generous or selfish roles but no human beggar was present! Instead, the selfish donor would say, “No” and gesture for an imaginary person to go away, and the generous donor would say, “Take it” and offer the imaginary person the treat. The “ghost scenario” tested whether dogs were simply reacting to the tone and gestures of the donors as opposed to the third-party interaction itself.

Main findings:
Dogs preferred the generous donor; they spent more time looking at her and interacting with her. Dogs also appeared to rely more on donors’ vocal cues as opposed to their gestural cues.

In support of these findings, dogs in the “ghost” group showed no significant preference for the generous or selfish donor. This suggests the dogs were not responding to a preference for or avoidance of a donor based on her behavior (i.e., nice voice and gestures vs. harsh voice and gestures). Instead, dogs were attending to the interaction between the beggar and the donors.

Researchers concluded that dogs were using information from third-party interactions.

PS: Watch a video clip of the experimenter!

Study summary provided by:
Emily Cherenack
Barnard  2012

Orellana del Fierro
Barnard 2011

One response to this post.

  1. […] Investigating Canine Research: Are Our Dogs Spying on Us? A fascinating study conducted in Italy and summarized by Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. The study looks at the ways in which are dogs are watching us–reading our facial cues and listening to the tones of our voices–to get what they want. (Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab) […]


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