When confronted with an unfamiliar object, dogs, Canis familiaris, engage in social referencing, i.e. synchronizing their reaction with that of their owner. The question of whether, like infants, they do so when confronted with an unfamiliar person, has not yet been studied. We tested the reactions of 72 pet dogs (36 shepherds and 36 molossoids) that were confronted with an unfamiliar person who approached them in a neutral manner. The dogs' owners were instructed to behave in one of three ways towards the stranger: stay still, approach or retreat. The dogs performed referential looks and gaze alternations between the experimenter and their owner. In the retreat condition, the dogs looked at the stranger significantly sooner and took significantly more time before first contact with the stranger compared to the approach condition. Moreover, in the retreat condition the dogs interacted more with their owners compared to other conditions. Additionally, sex had an effect on dogs' behaviours, with males looking towards their owner for information less than females. Breed also influenced dogs' reactions, with molossoid dogs behaving more independently than shepherd dogs. This study shows that pet dogs use social referencing with their owner in an approach paradigm involving a stranger. These findings provide evidence of similar processes in dogs with their owners and human infants with caregivers, and suggest a new way to manage dogs' reactions in public places. (C) 2016 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.