Dogs’ relationships affect their decisions

Dogs who have low levels of rivalry are more likely to follow each other’s lead when making decisions.

Researchers at Canisius College conducted a study on whether the relationship between two dogs living in the household could influence their behavior. They found that dogs who showed little aggression toward each other were more likely to follow each other’s decisions than dogs with higher levels of rivalry. The study results were published in the April issue of Animal Cognition.

Because research done on how dogs are influenced by each other usually involves two dogs are who are strangers, the researchers wanted to look at how dogs react to other dogs they are familiar with. Researchers visited 37 two-dog homes and how owners fill out a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire.

Dogs were then divided into a low- or high-rivalry category. Dogs that were low in rivalry were never or rarely aggressive toward the other dog in their home. Dogs that were high in rivalry displayed some degree of aggression, around valuable resources.

The test itself involved the research assistant placing two plates of food in front of the dogs. One dog was allowed to eat food from one plate and then was led from the room, leaving behind one empty plate and one full plate. The second dog was then allowed to choose whether it would follow the first dog’s lead and end up at the empty plate, or whether it would go to the second plate that still had food on it.

Dogs in the low-rivalry category were more likely to follow the first dog and end up at an empty plate. However, this was the case only when dogs were led to make their choice immediately. If given a five second or longer pause to make their decision, dogs would go to the full plate of food.

In a press release, Malini Suchak, PhD, and a researcher in the study, said they believe this suggests “that the low rivalry dogs may have been automatically following their housemates. When we forced the dogs to wait, it was as if the low rivalry dogs actually took the time to think about the situation, and they went straight for the food."

A second test had a human take food from the plate before letting the dog choose which plate to approach. The dogs low in rivalry were more likely to follow the humans with no delay, just as they were more likely to follow other dogs. High-rivalry dogs were less likely to approach the empty plate. The researchers suggest this could be because the high-rivalry dogs may pay less attention to other dogs than low-rivalry dogs do.

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