Margaret Loarca

Dogs Behave Differently When Meeting A Stranger Depending On Their Personality and How the Stranger Acts

April 4, 2021   /  

Name: Margaret Loarca
Major: Neuroscience
Advisors: Dr. Sharon Lynn

Dogs have evolved to coinhabit the same areas as humans. How and why dogs first came in contact with humans is still widely contested, but regardless, dogs are here to stay in society.Oxytocin promotes affiliative behavior in many vertebrates including dogs and humans. There are numerous studies showing that when an owner and dog spend time together, their oxytocin levels increase. This can be a petting session or a human and dog gazing at each other. However, not all dogs are the same –dogs have varying personalities that impact their behavior. This study investigated three ideas:1) how dogs with varying personalities behaved when they met a stranger; 2) if there was a variation in the dogs’ behavior if the stranger acted aloof or friendly; and 3) if there were any consistent changes in oxytocin when the dogs met the stranger. To determine the dog’s personality, owners completed the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). Depending on the treatment, the stranger either (1) approached the dogs in a friendly manner by calling to the dogs and actively encouraging the dogs to be pet or (2) acted in an aloof manner by ignoring the dogs unless they came to the stranger’s side. With both treatment groups, the owners were close by, but could not pet or talk to their dogs. Dogs who were not attached to their owner and in the aloof treatment group, looked and glanced at the stranger significantly more often than dogs who were attached to their owners and in the friendly treatment group. In addition, the not attached dogs in the aloof treatment stared at neither their owners nor the stranger for a longer time than any other group, and significantly more than either the dogs that were not attached or the dogs who were attached to their owners and received friendly treatment. I measured salivary oxytocin by ELISA, but did not find any changes in oxytocin based on the dog’s personality type or treatment group. This research has future implications because it shows that a dog’s personality affects how they act with a stranger and that how strangers acts affects dog behavior.

Margaret will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

93 thoughts on “Dogs Behave Differently When Meeting A Stranger Depending On Their Personality and How the Stranger Acts”

  1. Fascinating! You would have thought the attached dogs would have looked at their owners more. Very interesting research!

    1. I also thought that attached dogs would have looked at their owners more! To me that’s the interesting thing about animal behavior studies – you never know what you are going to find.

  2. I enjoyed participating in your research and seeing your findings. I find this an interesting topic and to be able to study the different breeds and being able to categorize them the way the C-Barq evaluation did was a great tool for your research. Thank you for allowing me to include my dogs.

    1. Thank you for participating in my project! It means a lot to me that you brought all of your dogs.

  3. Great job!! I loved watching your presentation, looking at your methods, seeing your findings, and being able to connect many topics to what we have learned in the Animal Behavior class.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was in Animal Behavior that I learned about animal personality and I found the topic really interesting.

  4. Very thorough research! I love how the connection and security that a dog has with its owner manifests itself in the dog’s reactions to other humans. It would be very interesting to see how ocytocin levels of dogs that are in shelters and then adopted changes. Great job!

    1. Thank you! If you are talking about measuring dog’s baseline levels of oxytocin when they are in a shelter and then when they are adopted that would be very interesting research. However, there have been studies that show that when a dog is in a shelter there cortisol levels are raised. Cortisol is the hormone involved in the stress response and since oxytocin is also involved in the stress response oxytocin may be increased due to stress. The results would be complicated to analyze because of this however, still would be very interesting to see!

  5. This is my kind of research! Great job! It must have been so fun to do this field research with dogs as well. Very interesting that the oxytocin level didn’t increase for any of the groups. I wonder if it only increases after contact with someone they know well? So wonderful to watch – thank you!

    1. I had a great time meeting all the dogs! It may be the case that oxytocin only increases when they are being pet by someone they know.

  6. Wow, 49 dogs! Great job Maggie, I am so glad you had this chance to work on a study topic that I know you are so passionate about. Wishing you all the best!

  7. Great job Maggie. While not a dog owner myself, there are many dogs in our neighborhood who routinely go for walks with their owners. I will definitely be more observant of their behaviors when interacting them moving forward, due to what I have learned from your study. Congratulations.

  8. Really cool to see this all come together Maggie! I’ve always enjoyed the applied aspects of animal behavior. Congrats!

  9. Very interesting study! I did a similar IS (way back in 2003) on dogs and attachment to their owners, based on whether the dogs had single-owners (meaning they were with 1 family since they were a puppy) vs. multiple owners (i.e. lived with more than 1 family throughout their lifetime). Your research makes me think of my IS experience – thank you for making me reminisce!

    1. Thank you! It’s always great to hear about other people’s IS. Your project sounds super interesting! What did you find?

      1. Wow, Kate! I didn’t realize you had done that. I need you to come talk to my Animal Behavior class too!

        Maggie– fantastic job from inception through completion. Congratulations!

  10. Congrats Maggie! Great presentation, love the Cooper pics! (Also the fact that you photoshopped your head on the figures is the best thing I’ve ever seen.)

    1. Thank you! Lol yes I wanted to make sure it was clear you knew what the behaviors were.

  11. Hi Maggie! Great presentation! I learned a lot and it was very easy to follow! I just have one question, you mention that you looked at all different dog breeds and this could be related to not getting different oxytocin levels. Is there a dog breed that would have been ideal for you to study?

    1. Thank you! That’s a great question. I originally wanted to focus on sporting dog breeds because they are common pet breeds. A lot of research focuses on labs and golden retrievers so I guess they are the “ideal” breeds just because they are frequently studied.

  12. This is an amazing project!! I really loved listening to your video and connecting things that we have learned in class and lab to your I.S.!

  13. Congratulations Maggie! Your research is so interesting, and I love your presentation (and all the dog pictures)! I have a question about your procedure: You tested the dog saliva to compare oxytocin levels between treatment and non-treatment groups. How can you compare relative oxytocin levels between samples? For example, how do you control if one dog has low oxytocin but is really slobbery, but another dog has high oxytocin levels but is not slobbery? Is it possible that the first dog’s sample could show more oxytocin than the other?

    1. Thank you! The method I used to measure oxytocin samples is called an ELISA assay and it measures the concentration of oxytocin. An ELISA kit is called a plate and there are 96 wells on each plate. I add the same volume of saliva and other reagents to each well so the amount of saliva a dog produces does not affect the value the machine reads when I read the plate.

    1. I did briefly consider using working dogs however, to control for variability, I decided to use pet dogs. In terms of how the results would vary that’s a good question. I would expect working dogs who have the same job to have similar personalities so the project may end up comparing police dogs to messenger dogs for example. The reason I anticipate working dogs who have the same job to have the same personalities is based upon studies that I have read that have tried to predict which puppies will make great service dogs.

  14. Very interesting study! Thank you for your presentation. It makes me curious about my dog’s behavior – I might be watching him a bit more closely!

    1. Thank you! When I was learning and reading things about dog behavior it definitely caused me to analyze my own dog!

  15. Hi Maggie! Awesome presentation! It shows a lot of perseverance that you were able to complete this study even with the many road blocks that were in your way this year. If you could go back and do the project all over again, would there be anything you would do differently?

    1. Thank you! How I would do things differently depends on if the COVID-19 pandemic was still going on or not. If we were still in the pandemic and knowing what I know now I would also try and measure cortisol levels to see how the dog’s stress levels changed. If we were not during the pandemic and knowing what I know now I would meet the dogs and owners in a room that was kept the same to control for variability.

  16. Great Job Maggie.
    I am glad you were able to do your your study with the Covid pandemic going on.

  17. Such a great presentation! Was it difficult to count when the dogs glanced and you and time how long they looked at you? How exactly did you go about doing this?

    1. Thank you! To answer simply yes it was difficult haha. I wore a GoPro on my head when I met the dogs so I could record their behaviors and score their behaviors later. I timed their behaviors with my phone and wrote down the length of time on paper that had all the behaviors listed. Each video was about 10 minutes long however, it took me 20-40 minutes to watch each video, especially if the dog moved around a lot. So what I did was watch the video a little bit to see what the dog does often. The things the dog did often I would record/time their behaviors in different viewings of the video but if they rarely did a behavior I would stop and record what I saw.

  18. I enjoyed this excellent report. Your use of the scientific method to explain behaviors of man’s best friend confirms what some dog owners, including myself, probably understand at an intuitive level but never knew how to explain. Thanks for making us understand our own unscientific observations. You are an extremely intelligent and talented person with a very bright future!

    1. Thank you! In Animal Behavior I remember learning about personality and thinking “yes, this makes sense” and I am so glad I got to learn more about it by working on my IS. I’d be happy to talk to you in the future about dog personality (I can literally talk about it for hours)!

  19. Congratulations! It is really exciting to see your full report. I also really appreciated you letting me bring my daughter to our dog’s testing session: it is important for her to have female scientist role models!

    1. Thank you! I had a great time meeting your daughter and dog. It’s awesome that you consider me a female scientist role more!

  20. Very interesting! I was impressed with how you designed the experiment, and the role of oxytocin. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you! Hormones are always interesting to learn about especially when you consider their behavioral affects.

  21. Hello and congratulations, Maggie! It’s a really interesting study, and I have enjoyed learning more about your topic and your work through this presentation. Again, congratulations and thank you!

    1. Thank you Dr. Graham! I really enjoyed your class and am so glad you watched my presentation!

  22. Maggie,
    As an owner of a beloved dog, I am always fascinated by any insight into their behavior! Your presentation was so well detailed and explained that even a non-scientific person like myself could follow and understand the research and conclusions. Well done and congratulations for completing your thesis!

    1. Thank you! Dogs have such interesting behaviors and this area of science has really taken off the last couple years. There are great books out there that you can read if you’d like to learn more!

  23. Great job, Maggie! I loved seeing how your project relates so much to our Animal Behavior class, and the conclusions about oxytocin levels were really interesting. Congratulations!

  24. This study is so interesting, especially for an owner of a dog that goes crazy when approached by a stranger. My dog’s response is very different when we are home and when we are in public. I wish you could have used Hurley in the study, but he would never let us take a saliva sample. He is definitely “attached” to his owner. Great presentation!!

    1. Thank you! Hurley is definitely attached however he knows me so I would not have been much of a stranger to him! I had the owners place the swabs in the dog’s mouths so the dogs wouldn’t associate me as “the lady who stuck a swab in my mouth.” Not that I asked the dogs but, if I had to take a guess, that was their least favorite part.

  25. This is such an interesting study, Maggie! I think animal personality is so cool and it’s awesome to see an example of how it can affect behavior.

    1. Thank you! I also think animal personality is really cool and am glad that I was able to do my IS on it.

  26. Amazing presentation!! You presented it in a very understandable way. Great job!

  27. Awesome presentation! I have a couple questions:
    What would you have done differently to make sure you had enough saliva from each dog (if there was something to be done differently)?
    How do you think your dog would react in this situation?

    1. Great questions! I would have diluted the saliva samples for all of the ELISA assays which means I would have needed a smaller volume to run the assays but still would have had accurate readings of concentrations.

      I do not know how my own dog would have acted. In the beginning I can see him crying/barking at me but, if he was in the friendly treatment group, may have gone to the stranger eventually. If he was in the aloof treatment group he would have never approached the stranger.

  28. Such an awesome project Maggie! I’ve been waiting to see the results of this since you first talked about it in junior I.S. I am so glad you were able to pursue this project even in the midst of a pandemic. Congrats!

  29. This was just a great presentation and interesting research, Maggie! I really do like that you recognized how stressful a ride in the car is for many dogs. My dogs don’t like the car AT ALL even though many dogs love to go for rides. So, I imagine their levels of oxytocin would be quite high (and I didn’t realize stress could raise oxytocin). Great job! Congratulations!

    1. Thank you! My one dog would vomit every time he went on a car ride and my other dog loves them!

  30. Amazing job Maggie! It was awesome to watch your process over this school year– from meeting the dogs to working in the lab. I wanted to ask– how did you react to particularly jumpy dogs? Did they all eventually calm down, or were there some dogs that were just a bit too wild?

    P.S. I love the slide where you pasted your face on one of the people! Very cute.

    1. Thank you Kath! I followed the procedure the same and some of the dogs did lick my face for a very long time. Most of the time I was able to push the dogs off after awhile but some of the larger dogs could lick my face if they were standing next to me. One dog was so excited to see me she knocked over the chair so I was laughing and petting her as a set it back up.

  31. Thank you! I enjoyed meeting you on that very windy day up at Kinney Field. Thanks for bringing community into your I.S. research. It is really fun for me to know that Felix and Theo were part of something so special.

    1. Thank you! I had a great time meeting your dogs and it was a very windy day!

  32. Well done, Margaret! Being an owner of multiple dogs throughout my life, I was immediately drawn to this topic. Especially since some of our dogs were not friendly to strangers.
    Very interesting! Congratulations on your success.

    1. Thank you! I was drawn to this topic because of my own experiences with dogs. In the class I TA for we talked about how our prior experiences shape who we are as scientists.

  33. Great job, Maggie. I was very interesting to learn that how you acted towards the dogs influenced their behavior.

  34. Congratulations Maggie! This is an interesting project. I am a bit envious of your research partners for this study. Best wishes to you!

  35. Awesome job Maggie! I have a hunch that dogs that are more securely attached to their owners are more confident dogs and therefore don’t need to check in as much. This was a really fascinating experiment that you did! Did you have to wear a mask while meeting the dogs?

    1. Thank you! I defined attached as being dogs who scored high on attachment on C-BARQ. This means that them being attached could pose a potential behavioral problem in the future. From my study the non-attached dogs do not need to be as close to their owners to feel secure as attached dogs, so I would say they were more confident. If by “securely attached” you mean the dogs who have a healthy level of attachment then maybe!

      I did not wear a mask when I met the dogs because dogs use human facial expressions to read human’s emotions. I was more than 6 feet away from the owners and outside!

  36. What a well-designed and interesting study! I would love to have you conduct this experiment on our pit-bull/lab mix and our chichuahua/weiner mix. When we have parties with around 50 people, the pit-bull/lab maintains a constant temperament; the chichuahua/weiner mix, however, goes from friendly to snappy as the night goes on. I bet his stress hormones rise the more he is picked up and petted by strangers. So the length of time of stranger interactions, the nature of the interaction, (picked up and petted vs. just petted) and multiple strangers and interactions in a set period of time would be other interesting variables to explore in future studies.

    Great presentation and paper!

  37. Maggie,
    I found this super interesting. It made me wonder about Lacey. She barks whenever anyone comes to our door, but the tone of her bark is not always the same. It would be interesting to measure her oxytocin level when her bark tone changed to see if she is more stressed or less. Then we would know which bark is the friendly one. I am not sure if it would work but it would be interesting to test.
    Great job!!

    1. Thank you! I think a study about what a dog’s bark means would be very interesting! I’ve never read one but I’m sure it is out there!

  38. Your project is amazing! I know how hard you worked throughout this entire process, I’m so proud, congrats on finIShing!!!

  39. I found this study to be very fascinating! As a owner of 3 dogs with varying personality types it would have been interesting to see the differences in how they responded in this study, especially because one still has abandonment issues and get nervous if she is left out for too long. Especially if she was just tied to a tree. I wonder if her cortisol levels would rise or her oxytocin would rise with the stranger interaction. Would love to learn more!

    1. Thank you! While it was not statistically significant the majority of dog’s oxytocin levels decreased over the interaction. In hindsight it would have been super interesting to measure cortisol in the dogs!

  40. Very interesting! Great presentation!! My two dogs both have very different personalities so I wonder how they would have reacted! Great job!

  41. Congratulations on your research. I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to get my Sophie in the study. It would be so interesting to hear your take on her as my family always says she’s overly attached to me. Thank you for sharing your work.

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