Converging evidence suggests that the presence of (attentive) others has a positive effect on people’s propensity to conform to social rules. It is also increasingly accepted that pet dogs are promising test subjects to study non-human analogues of “audience effect.” This study investigates whether dogs show a tendency to change their behavior according to the visual attention of familiar and unfamiliar human partners in a situation in which human partners disallowed the dog from eating a piece of food.
Dogs (n = 64) participated in two observational conditions (Attentive Owner and Attentive Experimenter) and a control condition in which both human participants engaged in distracting activity.
The results showed that the identity of the attentive or inattentive partner has little relevance to the dogs’ gazing behavior (i.e., head orientation toward the different partners and the food) and their decisions about breaking or following the rule. This is in line with previous studies suggesting that the presence of the owner predominantly determines the dogs’ responses to such situations.
Further analysis of dogs responding differently to the obedience challenge showed marked differences in the role of the “audience effect” might play in modulating “fully obedient,” “ignorer,” and “hesitating” dogs’ gazing behavior. These findings point to the context-dependent nature of the audience effect in dogs and highlight the importance of frequently ignored individual differences in dogs’ tendency to conform to the situational rules.