Collaborative interactions between humans and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)

  • Patrizia Piotti

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) are ideal subjects for the comparative
study of collaboration: they form stable social groups, engage in cooperative
behaviour, and are characterised by human-like social skills. Moreover, dogs understand when human communication is intended for them, they obtain information about the emotional valence of human facial expressions and vocalisations, and readily form attachment bonds with humans. It has been hypothesised that, during the domestication process, dogs have been selected for collaborative activities with humans and evolved some human-like social skills as an adaptation to life with humans.
However, collaborative interactions between dogs and humans are
understudied and not well understood. The aim of this research is to explore
dogs’ behaviour in contexts seen as the building blocks for successful
collaboration: informative communication, reputation forming, and other regarding preferences. In the first chapter of the thesis I review the literature on
these topics. In Chapter 2, I explore the applicability to dogs of an experimental
method for the comparative study of informative communication. In Chapter 3,
with a simplified protocol, I provide evidence that dogs have some level of
understanding of the relevance of the target for a human partner. Chapter 4
investigates reputation forming in dogs, suggesting that they do not take into
account their previous experience about a human partner’s skilfulness when they
communicate to request human help. In Chapter 5, I use a novel apparatus for the study of other-regarding preferences, confirming that, in a food sharing situation, dogs do not act altruistically towards humans but are rather motivated by the expectation of obtaining the food reward. Finally, in Chapter 6 I discuss the findings in the light of the current literature. The research presented in this PhD provides evidence that dogs may possess some of the building blocks of
collaboration but not others. Specifically, they may have some understanding of
the relevance of a target of communication for a human partner. However, there
is no evidence that dogs’ can use reputation judgments in collaborative contexts
as flexibly as humans or chimpanzees, and in terms of other-regarding
preferences, dogs do not appear to act altruistically towards humans when food is involved. Overall, the current results may be taken as a confirmation that dogs’
human-like social skills may represent a specialisation to receive human
Date of AwardJan 2017
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJuliane Kaminski (Supervisor), Paul Morris (Supervisor) & Bridget Waller (Supervisor)

Cite this