Research suggests that dogs are capable of making judgements based on our behavior. Is this something we can adapt for our shy, reactive or aggressive dogs or do they even have the same ability?

Dogs Judge Unhelpful People

It’s more likely that dogs aren’t capable of magic, but may be more in tune with behaviour than we are. But research suggests it goes beyond that.  In this paper, Third-party social evolutions of humans by monkey’s and dogs it suggests that dogs actually negatively evaluate unhelpful people. Dogs that see people being unhelpful to their owners are less likely to take a treat from them than they are from people who are helpful.

For dogs that are shy, reactive or aggressive, the simple fact of not knowing may be enough for the dog to react in a less than friendly way. Some aggressive dogs may even behave in way to “test the waters”, meaning that they may behave in a way to provoke a reaction. If the other dog or person responds in a threatening way or in a fearful way, then they got more information on how to evaluate the situation.

Do shy, reactive or aggressive dogs do the same?

Implications for Reactive Dogs

What we don’t know for sure is how many dogs may have difficulty in evaluating social interactions. Like some people with Autism, some dogs may struggle with making sense of certain social cues.

Could a modified test like this be developed with reactive dogs to see if they might be challenged with accurately reading certain social situations?

Could we adapt the experiment working with unknown but otherwise equally behaved dogs or people at a distance that our dog could still remain calm, but rather than have the dog approach the person, perhaps the people in the experiment who have been unhelpful/helpful could put a treat or a toy down at a distance, and see if the dog makes any predictable choices about approaching the item.  Or instead perhaps measure the distance where our dog starts to become tense?

Implications for Behaviour Modification?

Could the insight in these studies aid in behavior modification sessions?   Generally behavior modification plans should be developed in increments in a way to ideally stretch the dog’s abilities to remain calm in one “area”. In other words, we may work only on the time element where we encourage the dog to sit and be calm a little longer than before, rather than working on both time and distance (i.e. getting the dog to sit longer while also closer to the thing that typically triggers the undesired response).

But each time we change a criteria, we risk the dog not being able to remain calm. Dogs discriminate far more than we do. This means that while your dog might decide is ok in one situation, they may not when the situation changes. We can make some changes small such as have the dog remain calm a little longer, or move the dog just a little closer.

But when it comes to changing our target subject – this might be too big of a change.  Perhaps we use a set up like this to help smooth over the change in subjects in situations where we might not be able to control the distance or duration as well.  For example, could we use this during veterinary visits?

Could We Adapt the Experiment for a Veterinary Home Visit?

Try sending the link to the research paper and video to your vet and ask if there may be some way your dog can observe your vet helping you before your vet has to deal with your dog.

Inviting people into the home when your reactive dog is reactive is present can be a recipe for disaster! Whenever your dog is in a situation where he or she feels enclosed or trapped whether it’s your home, on the end of a leash or in a car, your dog is going to be more reactive.  But if your dog is at a place in their behaviour modification plan where they have indicated he or she is ready to remain calm in these circumstances, perhaps showing your dog that the person is helpful to you may be helpful.

What if My Shy, Reactive or Aggressive Dog Can’t Accurately Judge Others?

If your dog can’t accurately determine which person is a dog or a threat based on their behaviour, then using this research is unlikely to make much of a difference. But it does tell you that your dog is special and needs special accommodations.

In this case, it may be time to consider seeing a veterinary behaviorist to determine if there is something more at work  going on with your dog’s behaviour that can be treated such as a generalized anxiety disorder or perhaps some other issue.

If you’re stuck living with a dog who appears to be incapable of making good decisions about others, then you need to seriously consider two things:

  1. Keeping your dog away from the things that trigger him or her reaction
  2. Rock solid training that will get your dog to perform the way you want predictable. Lots of repetition!

Management of your dog’s environment is the safest way to keep your dog from behaving aggressively. It’s easier to put your dog in a quiet bedroom when people come to visit than try to keep your dog in a leash distracted with treats when all they want to do is lunge at your visitor. But sadly, we can’t account for every scenario, (someone mistakes the bedroom door for a bathroom door, or is looking for their coat, or feels faint and needs to lie down, etc.). So if something fails we need to fall back on training.

Training your dog to sit, lie down, move away, touch a particular target such as a bed or your hand is can be simple to teach, but teaching your dog to perform that behaviour automatically every time without exception is far more challenging.

“Automatic” behaviour needs constant practice repetition in variety of situations. Situation need to be increasing more challenging in nature as your dog is successfully able to perform the behavior.

You still need to be aware that the more stress your dog is feeling at any one time, the more likely they will not perform the behaviour whether it is situational stress, or stress that has been building up over time or a combination of both.


Dogs Evaluate More Than Helpfulness

What is interesting about this study and the video below is that the dogs must also perceive when we are struggling with something. In this case the person is struggling with opening a container and they are using their hands to do it. This is not something that a dog can do (at least easily!), but they clearly understand that not only is it a task we can do but know when we’re having trouble with it.

Not only are they making judgements about the people who choose to help or not help, but they are also evaluating our own behaviour based on the ease or difficulty we are having in being successful with the task.

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