Can Dogs Learn from Eavesdropping? Dogs Can Eavesdrop From People’s Reactions in Third Party Interactions.

Dogs Can Eavesdrop From People’s Reactions in Third Party Interactions


Image Credit: Claudia Bensimoun

Have you wondered how our reactions towards other people may affect the way our dogs react to the very same people? Can our body language affect the way our dogs behave?

Past research has demonstrated that the socio-cognitive abilities of dogs (in particular, dogs that are able to read human communicative gestures and cue) may be the result of the domestication process. This research has shown that dogs are able to read into human emotions and can read into whether an approaching human is friendly or not. It has also been demonstrated that dogs tend to prefer people that give them social rewards such as petting and positive verbalizations. Dogs have been known to differentiate between a smiling face and a neutral face, as well as between expressions of happiness and disgust, and they also use this information to find food. Dogs are also able to recognize sadness and will approach a crying person. With that said, researchers expected that dogs were good candidates for a new study.

Research by Drs. Freidin, Putrino, D’Orazio, and Dr. Bentosela at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, demonstrated that dogs’ nonrandom choices of which person (called a “donor”) to approach for food relied on the simultaneous presence of multiple clues, such as the place where donors stood and several other features such as the behavior of someone requesting food (called the “beggar”), which included gestural and verbal reactions, and eating behaviors.

In the first experiment, 1a, the researchers assessed whether the dogs could develop a preference between the donors who behaved similarly and beggars asking for food. The donors would either react positively or negatively by using hand and body movements, as well as by verbal means. If the dogs developed a preference, this would mean that the dogs were capable of discrimination between the beggar’s positive and negative emotional reactions, and that the dogs were associating those specific reactions with the corresponding donor. It also meant that these dogs were using the information so that they would know which donor to go to (depending on whether the donor was friendly or not to the beggar). In the second and third experiments, 1b and 1c, the researchers tested whether dogs were conditioned to the place, instead of to the donors. In experiment 1b, the donors switched places in between demonstrations and before the dog could choose. In experiment 1c, the phantom control group, the beggar had to present the same verbal and gestural cues similar to those shown in experiment 1a, without donors and without the social interactive component.


Seventy two domestic dogs were recruited. The average age of these dogs was 4.73 years. Forty one of these dogs were male and 31 were female. There were 17 Poodles, 5 German Shepherds, 5 Labrador Retrievers, 3 Golden Retrievers, 2 Cocker Spaniels, 1 Beagle, 1 Border Collie, 1 Boxer, 1 Breton, 1 Dalmatian, 1 Fox Terrier, 1 French Bulldog, 1 Great Dane, 1 Pitt Bull Terrier, 1 Samoyed, 1 Shih Tzu, 1 Weimaraner, 1 Yorkshire, and 27 mixed breeds. Of all the dogs, 36 had previous experience in other communicative tasks.


All the subjects were randomly assigned to one of the three groups:

The first group used gestural and verbal cues.
The second group used only gestural cues.
The third group used only verbal cues.


All the dogs were tested in a familiar environment, either in their home or at a dog care facility that they sometimes attended. During the 5 -10 minutes that it took the researchers to set up the experiment with the camera and tape, the dogs were allowed to interact with the assistant that would later act as the dog’s handler. The other three assistants did not interact with the dog. Next, the other two assistants who were the donors took their positions by standing and facing each other at a distance of two meters. The fourth assistant would then act as the beggar. All the donors were female, and the beggar was the same male participant in all the sessions. A square-shaped, 75cm-per-side box was marked on the floor around each donor and referred to as the “choice area.” The dog was made to stay two meters from the intermediate point between both donors, hence forming a triangle. The researchers attached a camera to a tripod behind the dog to take photos. During this experiment, the dog’s owner was not present.


The donor held a plate containing bits of sausage and corn flakes. The sausages had a strong aroma and were used to catch the dogs’ attention to the scene. The corn flakes in this experiment was eaten by the donors, and also used to feed the beggar during demonstrations.


In each session, the dog started off in the starting position, and the two donors would approach him/her and allow for the dog to smell the plates with sausage and corn flakes, without allowing the dog to eat it. The donors would then walk back to their respective positions and begin eating the corn flakes. They would always direct their gaze at their plates and ignore the dog. During this time, the beggar would be standing a meter behind the intermediate point between the donor’s position, which would be opposite the dog’s starting position. The beggar became active 10 seconds after the donors were at their respective places.

The beggar would then approach each donor three times and would not approach the same donor more than twice in a row. The beggar would then return to his starting position. Only after he made the sixth interaction would he leave the room.

The beggar would always take the food, but reacted differently to every donor. With the “positive” donor, the beggar ate the corn flakes saying “So tasty.” When he interacted with the “negative” donor, the beggar would put the corn flakes back onto his plate saying “So ugly.” He would then turn his back on that donor. In another experiment, the beggar approached a donor and held out his hand without saying anything. The beggar would then receive a corn flake from the donors, and he would either accept the corn flake or reject it depending on the donor.

When the beggar took the corn flake from the positive donor, he ate it while facing the donor. Yet when he refused the corn flake from the negative donor, he would put it back on his plate and face the other way. In the last experiment, the beggar never spoke to any of the donors. In another experiment, the beggar repeated the same things, but without any hand gestures and without accepting any corn flakes. However, he said “Me Das?” to both donors, after which he said “So Ugly” and “So Good” to both the positive and negative donors. This time, he never turned his back on the negative donor. The dog was released after all of the six interactions were completed.


After being released, the dog had 10 seconds to choose between the donors, who did not interact with the dog. The researchers observed that, after approaching donors, the non-rewarded dogs departed from the main scene and began exploring a larger area. Some even lost interest.

The studies demonstrated that dogs were capable of developing a preference for people based on eavesdropping, in this case, watching the interactions between people. Dogs had the ability to develop a preference between participants based on the reaction that an interacting person, the beggar, had shown towards them. The researchers found that dogs seemed to need many cues so that they would be able to develop a preference towards the positive donor. This was demonstrated when the beggar used many verbal and gestural cues, and ate during the positive demonstrations. These preferences disappeared when there were fewer cues used. These studies concluded that dogs relied on multiple cues and the absence of these cues impaired dogs discrimination.

Dogs needed both the gestural and verbal cues in order to reliably choose the positive donor. The study also suggests that if only gestural and verbal cues had been used without any food, there would not have been any effect on the dogs’ behavior, thus taking into account that a dogs’ degree of sociability and level of motivation for food were important motivators. The researchers concluded that dogs have the capacity to recognize subtle human expressions, which may indicate other people’s disposition to share valuable resources such as food, in this case by using multiple cues.

This study indicates that dogs may be able to learn by watching other dogs and people, assuming that the dogs see food being used as a reward. For more, visit: USDAA

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