When given the choice to fetch two objects, researchers found that dogs choose the item associated with their owner’s happiness more often than items associated with disgust, or no emotional association. However, they also found that dogs approached items previously associated with disgust first, just didn’t usually fetch that object. This is because dogs often like things we find disgusting! If on a walk your dog finds some three-week old birthday cake, you probably tell them to leave it alone with a disgusting look on your face. These types of learned behavioral associations could have influenced the dogs to initially approach the disgusting object but end up fetching the object that would make their owner happy instead. Ultimately, sometimes your dog likes gross things…but they also want to make you happy! Your dog can be completely in love with your moldy Chinese food, but also completely in love with you. The choice is hard, so give your pooch a break the next time they get into the trash - most of the time they want to please you!
100 dogs and 27 puppies participated in a study exploring canine ability to make decisions based on the understanding of human emotion. The dogs in this study were well-trained and needed to fetch on command to participate.* Once in the lab, the dogs were asked to fetch one of two water bottles (with a stone or treat inside) after they were previously associated with a human emotion. Owners would walk over to the bottles while the experimenter held the dogs leash and touch the water bottles while expressing either happiness, disgust, or no emotion. Then, the owners would say “fetch”. The dog then had the opportunity to fetch either water bottle.
A control condition was conducted to ensure that dogs could not smell the difference between the stone and treat bottle – and they couldn’t. So, any bottle preference can be attributed to the difference in the emotion attributed to the bottle. They found that the dogs did choose to fetch the object associated with the more positive emotion more often. However, before choosing to fetch the positively associated object, the dogs would most often first approach the item associated with disgust. Why would a dog first approach something humans think is disgusting?
Well..if you think about it, dogs get into disgusting things all the time. They will eat smelly and unknown things they find on walks, dig your week-old tuna salad out of the trash, and of course, munch on poop! The researchers assume that this initial approach behavior is probably related to dogs learning they like things we find disgusting. If your dog finds a
3-week old chicken bone and you grab it out of their mouth with disgust on your face, they might learn to associate your expression with something yummy, or at least something interesting.
Importantly, the dogs in this study eventually chose to fetch the object their owner had deemed positive more often than the negative item. This tells us that dogs, more often than not, want to do things that will please us. They want us to be happy – so give your beloved pup a break the next time they can’t resist the trash, it is really hard for them to resist, but they do try.
Where to find this article: Turcsán, B., Szántho, F., Miklosi, A., Kubinyi, E. (2014) Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behavior. Animal Cognition 18:83-94. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0779-3
Thanks to @thatsbear for letting us use their photo. Follow them on Instagram!
*Since all of the dogs were well-trained, if yours isn't, these results might not pertain to your dog.