Dogs, Humans and Dog Research

Methods and ideas that have long been dominant in social sciences are nowadays part of dog research. This doesn’t mean that dogs are humanized in sciences more than before. It means that different research designs in human sciences have been developed into versions that tell us about the dog as a species.

In the 1950s The American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the theory of social comparison. A dog version of this theory was introduced in the Animal Behavior magazine in 2018. The social comparison theory is based on the idea that in new situations, human children look at others’ gestures, expressions and actions to gauge what’s an appropriate emotional reaction and way to behave in the situation in the future.


The mantra of “be calm, confident and consistent” that dog owners hear repeated often is based on the assumption that dogs understand how we want them to behave. This approach may feel natural because it has once helped us to get to know the world in a safe way.

In a 2018 research design Claudia Fugazza’s research team compared the way puppies approach an unfamiliar object when they’re alone, with their mother or with an unfamiliar dog. Familiarity and an earlier example led to braver approach. The unfamiliar dog’s example didn’t help on the first round, but did on subsequent rounds. With the mother present the puppies approached the object more bravely already on the first test round. A human had a positive influence on the approaching only when they encouraged the puppy to explore. Familiarity and positive gestures go a long way!

Methods developed directly for animals aren’t always better than methods originally developed for humans. For example the mirror test developed for multiple animal species by Gordon Gallup Jr. in the 1970s was aimed to figure out sentience in animals using sight. However, we know dogs use their sense of smell and hearing for recognition as well, so their sense of sight may not be a significant factor.

Only a portion of dogs recognise themselves in the mirror. On the other hand they learn to use the mirror quite easily as a tool to figure out the relation of their own body to the physical space. The robot built by Yale University in 2012 could achieve the same. Scent versions of the mirror test have been developed in the 1970s by Marc Bekoff and in the 2010s by Alexandra Horowitz.

In dog research humans and dogs intertwine in interesting ways. On one hand we find some results obvious because of our own early experiences existing as tacit knowledge and attitudes about owning a dog in our minds. We should stop and consider what dog research actually tells us if we consider it obvious or as humanizing the dog. It means our tacit knowledge has probably been tacit for ourselves as well.

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