(Science Says So).
My dogs are retrieving maniacs; always have been. This is not surprising seeing that we live with Goldens and Tollers. Throw something (literally anything) and they will happily race after it, pick it up, and bring it back to you. We LOVE this about our dogs and they adore playing this game.
Pet Peeve Alert
So here is my pet peeve. Nothing irritates me more (perhaps other than someone barking commands at my dogs. Ugh.), than a visitor to our home doing the ol’ fake throw with our dogs. You know this move – the person picks up a coveted toy, teases the dog with it, then winds back as if to throw the toy……and instead, fake throws it. For some reason, there exist humans who apparently think this is an enjoyable game for my dogs (it is not).
Why do people DO this???
Luckily, the majority of people who we associate with love dogs and do not view teasing as an appropriate way to play with them. Those that do try this with my dogs? Well, they get one go of it. Then I remove the toys and the dogs. And I wait for the person to leave. Snarky facial expressions may also be involved.
Teasing is BAD.
Teasing dogs comes in a variety of flavors; all of them bad. These may include the aforementioned fake throw, deliberately withholding a coveted food treat, waving a toy high above a dog’s head, or taunting with a toy/food over a fence or beyond the dog’s reach.
Most people who care about dogs do not do these things. They know that teasing causes dogs to be frustrated, stressed and unhappy. It is not a nice way to play with others (our mothers taught us that). While a dog’s frustration when being teased is generally quite obvious, one does wonder how dogs feel about the person who is doing the teasing. Does the dog begin to mistrust such people? Decline to play with them? Begin to think they are jerks?
Two recent studies, conducted by different groups of researchers, asked this question. Their results provide some interesting evidence regarding what dogs actually think about people who deliberately tease them.
Is this person trustworthy?
In the first study, scientists tested dogs’ ability to recognize and react to the intentions of a person who was offering them a food treat (1). They used an experimental approach that has been validated in several other species that is called the “Unwilling versus Unable” paradigm. The test examines a dog’s behaviors in response to a person who either intentionally or unintentionally withholds a desirable treat from them.
The Study: The researchers tested a group of 51 dogs with three different conditions. These were: (1) Unwilling (teasing) condition; the human tester acted like he was giving the dog a food treat, then deliberately pulled the treat away and placed it on the floor; (2) Unable and clumsy condition; the human tester started to give the dog the treat but then accidentally dropped the treat onto the floor; (3) Unable and blocked condition; the human tester started to give the dog the treat but was physically blocked from getting it to the dog by a barrier; the treat drops to the floor. (Note: It is important to this test that the outcome, a treat lying on the floor, is the same in all three conditions and that it only the person’s perceived intentions that differ).
The Set-Up: In all three conditions, the dog sat on one side of a transparent wall with the tester sitting on the opposite side, facing the dog. A small opening in the barrier allowed the person to give the dog a treat by reaching through the hole (or not). When the treat fell or was placed onto the floor on the tester’s side of the barrier, the dog was allowed to go around the barrier to retrieve the treat. All of the dogs experienced all three conditions in a randomized order.
Data Collected:: The researchers measured behavioral responses and the amount of time (latency) that it took the dog to decide to go around the barrier to retrieve the dropped treat. The researchers hypothesized that if dogs understood intent (i.e. this person is teasing me and has decided not to give me the treat vs. this person is clumsy or is blocked from giving me the treat), that the dogs would retrieve the treat faster if they believed the person had intended on feeding them than if they believed the person was deliberately withholding a treat from them.
The study results suggest that dogs do indeed form an opinion about someone who intentionally withholds an offered treat (i.e. is teasing them):
- Waited longer: Dogs waited significantly longer to move around the barrier and retrieve the dropped treat in Condition 1 (teasing) than in the other two conditions.
- Freezing: Sitting or lying down and not moving occurred more frequently in response to Condition 1 (teasing) than in the other two conditions.
- Still tail: Dogs ceased tail wagging more frequently in Condition 1 (teasing) than in the other two conditions.
In a nutshell, when dogs experienced a person showing them a treat and then deliberately taking it away and not giving it to them (the definition of teasing), they waited longer before moving to approach the person and were more likely to sit or lie down in place and to cease tail-wagging. While one cannot definitively interpret these differences as frustration or stress, these results DO show that dogs distinguish between a person who is teasing them and one who is not, and react differently to someone who teases them. Whether or not they think the teasing person is a jerk or not is still open to speculation. The second study attempted to answer that particular question.
Do dogs hold a grudge?
The second study used the same testing paradigm (Unwilling versus Unable) and tested 96 dogs. The researchers also included several minor changes to maintain greater consistency with prior studies with other species (see paper for details). In addition to testing the three conditions, a subsequent experiment repeated the test paradigm but used two testers; one who was consistently willing but unable (clumsy; dropped the treat) or one who was deliberately unwilling (teasing). The objective of the second experiment was to determine whether the dogs would develop a preference for a person who did not tease them over someone who did.
The researchers found that, as in the previous experiment, dogs did distinguish between similar human actions that had the same outcome but which differed in intent. The data supported the distinctions in this way:
- Patience with a clumsy person: The slightly different set-up in this study allowed the experimenters to measure behavioral indicators of patience vs. frustration. Dogs were more likely to remain close to the tester and wait for the treat, refrained from either moving away or freezing in a sit/down, and interacted more with the tester (less avoidance of eye contact) in the clumsy condition than in the teasing condition.
- Tail asymmetry bias: Interestingly, dogs in the unable (clumsy) condition were more likely to have a rightward tail deflection during wagging compared with dogs in the teasing condition. Other studies have shown that a rightward tail bias is associated with affiliation and approach (i.e. friendly) behaviors in dogs. These new results are supportive of the interpretation that the dogs recognized the willingness of the clumsy tester to interact with them and did not show this bias with the teasing tester.
- Did the dogs hold a grudge? The dogs did not show a subsequent preference for the clumsy tester over the teasing tester following the testing interactions with two different people. This may have been due to a relatively short interaction period (i.e. not enough time for the teasing tester to develop a bad rep), or the dogs did not generalize their first experience to later interactions, or that dogs are just simply more forgiving than humans tend to be (okay, I added that last one).
This study included a larger number of dogs, replicated (for the most part) the methods used in the previous work, and found the same thing: Dogs can distinguish between humans who are intentionally teasing them versus those who demonstrate the same action but for an unintentional reason, such as being clumsy and dropping the treat. Moreover, the dogs appear to view a clumsy, non-teasing person more favorably than a teaser based upon their degree of interactions, freezing behaviors, and tail-wagging biases. Regardless of these responses, dogs (as is their way) did not hold a grudge against a teaser when meeting the person in a follow-up interaction.
Take Away for Dog Folks
So there you have it. Teasing is bad for dogs for many reasons. Not only is it unkind, but dogs appear to be aware of a teasing person’s nefarious intentions and they neither enjoy the encounter nor do they enjoy interacting with such a person. We all know not to tease dogs (or we should know this). Now there is evidence that the dog who is the target of the teasing does not like that person (although being the good boy who he is, he may not hold the grudge for long).
- Schunermann B, Keller J, Rakoczy H, Behne T, and Brauer J. Dogs distinguish human intentional and unintentional action. Scientific Reports, 2011; 11:1-9.
- Voelter C, Lonardo L, Steinmann M, et al. Unwilling or Unable? Using 3D tracking to evaluate dogs’ reactions to differing human intentions. BioRxiv, 2022; In Press.