The Emotional Life of Puppy Stanley

I am happy to introduce the newest member of the Case family. Meet Stanley (aka Stan the Man, Stanley Manley, Stanley Pants).


Mike and I love having a new puppy in the house (lack of sleep and reduced writing time aside). One of the many things that we enjoy is sharing a new puppy’s excitement about all that is new in his world. Every toy is to be celebrated, each walk is an opportunity to meet people and smell new stuff, and every day is the start of a fresh adventure.

Of course, as anyone who has raised a puppy knows, some of these adventures can be initially scary for a young puppy. Stanley, who is a Toller, loves every new person, dog and cat who he meets. Socially, he is confident and bold. However, he can be quite sensitive to new sounds and situations. Knowing this, we are careful when introducing him to new settings or when he is exposed to unusual noises. We make sure that we are with him to provide security, emotional support and lots of yummy treats. We also behave in an emotionally positive manner, hoping that Stanley picks up on and reacts to our relaxed and happy demeanor.

Many owners intuitively believe that our puppies are sensitive to our emotions and that we can help them to accept and enjoy new experiences by the way that we ourselves behave. We may believe this, but what does science say about it? Lucky for us, Claudia Fugazza and Adam Miklosi and their team of scientists at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary recently studied this exact phenomenon.

Social referencing: The term for this type of learning is social referencing. It involves using the emotional cues of another individual to determine how to react to a novel situation. Social referencing is composed of two separate behaviors; (1) referential looking; this involves alternating gaze between the social partner and the novel stimulus to gain information, and (2) modifying one’s behavior consistent with the emotional cues that are received. This type of learning is well-documented in human children. Human mothers are not only a secure base for their child but also provide valuable information to the child about novel experiences and situations.

Why do it? Social referencing allows an individual to avoid costly (and potentially life-threatening) mistakes that can be made through trial and error learning. For example, learning that something is dangerous by watching a social partner react with fear has obvious advantages over ambling over to investigate the scary thing and finding out too late. This is especially important for young animals, including those of the human variety.

Do dogs have it? So, what about dogs and their humans? There is quite a bit of evidence supporting the existence of social referencing between adult dogs and their owners. I have written about a few of these studies previously. For example, like human infants, dogs seem to view their owners as a secure base when in new situations (“Hey Teacher, Leave those Dogs Alone!”), and they are capable of using referencing gestures to seek and gain our aid (“Get Help! Pony is in Trouble!”). There is also evidence that dogs are highly sensitive to the emotional signals of their owners when in new situations or when meeting an unfamiliar person. What has not been studied previously, is the question of when in a dog’s life social referencing develops and whether young puppies can learn through social referencing with humans.

Dr. Fugazza and her team set out to answer this question.

The Study: They tested 48 eight-week-old puppies in the presence of two novel stimuli, a floor fan with plastic ribbons attached and a speaker emitting a loud creaking and siren noise. The puppies were tested when alone (control condition) or when paired with either their mother, an unfamiliar but friendly adult dog, or a relatively unfamiliar human. Tests with the human partner had two conditions; one in which the person behaved neutrally and the second in which the person behaved with a positive emotional state. Following the tests, puppies were retested alone, one hour later, to measure whether their observed responses were retained.  For each test, the puppy’s behavior and reactions were recorded and coded for analysis. [See paper for complete study design details].

Results: These little wee puppies, at 8-weeks of age, demonstrated social referencing with their mom, with the unfamiliar dog, and with their human partner. They altered their gaze between the novel stimulus and their social partner at least one time during each test. There were also several important distinctions:

  • Mom: When paired with their mother, puppies were significantly more likely to approach both the fan and the speaker, compared with when they were paired with the other dog or when alone.
  • Unfamiliar dog: Interestingly, although they did alternate gaze between the unfamiliar dog and the new objects, they were no more likely to approach the objects when paired with the unfamiliar dog than when they were alone. In other words, they did not show strong social referencing with the unfamiliar dog in terms of changes in behavior.
  • Human: Conversely, puppies who were paired with a person who showed a positive emotional response to the objects were significantly more likely to approach the fan and speaker, compared with puppies who were paired with a person showing a neutral response or when they were alone. However, the presence of a neutral person still tended to encourage the pups to approach more often than when they were alone.
  • What the puppies learned: When retested one hour later, puppies who had been partnered with a human showing positive emotions were most likely to approach the objects than puppies tested with a human showing neutral emotions or alone. In contrast, puppies tested with their mother or another dog did not retain their approach behavior after an hour lag period.

Conclusions: This is the first study to show that social referencing with humans develops very early in life in dogs. Eight-week-old puppies showed both referential gazing and changes in behavior (behavioral regulation) towards novel situations when in the presence of a human showing positive emotional signals. Moreover, they retained these behaviors after a delay of an hour, even when exposed to the objects in the absence of a partner. They behaved similarly in the presence of the mother dog, but did not retain their approach behaviors after a delay.

Take Away for Dog Folks: Wow. This study tells us that wee puppies, around weaning age (and not to put too fine a point on this, but…… prior to having the time to develop strong relationships with humans), are capable of looking to a friendly human partner for emotional information about whether or not a new and potentially scary thing is safe and can be approached. It is also quite amazing to learn that the emotional state of the human partner appeared to have a stronger influence upon the puppies’ responses than did a conspecific – another dog. These data are immensely important when we consider how we expose our pups to new situations and experiences. The difference (though small) between the human showing a positive emotional response and the human showing a neutral response tells us that it is quite important to help our pups emotionally whenever we are in new situations with them.

We all pay attention to our puppies’ emotional lives and how they respond to new situations. These data tell us that our puppies are also paying attention to our emotions and that they are retaining what they learn from them. Behaving in a relaxed and happy manner when introducing our pups to new settings and situations helps them to learn – science tells us so! 


Happy Training!

Cited Reference: Fugazza C, Moestra A, Pogany A, Miklosi A. Presence and lasting effect of social referencing in dog puppies. Animal Behavior 2018; 141:67-75.

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11 thoughts on “The Emotional Life of Puppy Stanley

  1. I cannot share her enough as Linda B. Case does do her reasearch and gives information in a way, I can understand and believe and also confirm from personal experience (which of course is not important to her but to me).
    Another great article and now I want to know if social referencing has a time window or is present in all ages of dogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christine – Thanks for your kind words and for your support of The Science Dog! So appreciate it! I was so blown away by this study’s results, and once again feel that these great studies, published in academic journals, need to get more attention in the dog world. Great point regarding whether or not there is a sensitive period for this type of learning (for example – do pups do this best within the traditional primary socialization period of ~ 5 to 12 weeks?). Will be great to see if someone looks at this! Best, Linda


    • Thank you, Jan! We are so in love with him already – And his big brother Cooper is as smitten as we are. (Alice had just recently decided that the little tyke may be a lot of fun and is starting to accept him and like him……just took a bit longer with her!). Thanks for reading and for your support of The Science Dog! Linda


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