Dogs perceive their owners' preferences (but do their own thing anyway) © Getty Images

Dogs perceive their owners’ preferences (but do their own thing anyway)

Researchers have demonstrated that dogs can understand when their owner expresses a preference for one thing or another, but that doesn't seem to stop them from doing what they want.

The age at which human infants can understand their parents is intensely studied by scientists, with research showing that 18-month-old babies are able to discern an adult’s preferences when offered two different types of foods. But do dogs have the same ability? Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University decided to find out.

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They first tested how dogs responded to their owners’ preferences when two options where placed in front of them: a green rubber ring toy and a plastic, flower-patterned bracelet. The dogs demonstrated their own preference initially, with all 12 dogs choosing the ring toy.

Then, the owners were brought in. They showed each object to the dog by holding it in front of their friend’s nose for a fews seconds, then placed both a few metres away. Now they had to indicate a preference for one in particular, which they did by crouching down behind the object, touching it, looking towards their dog and giving an emotional expression. The bracelet got happy looks, while the toy was ‘looked at with disgust’.

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After this, the owners walked back to their dogs to give the command, hozd, which is ‘fetch’ in Hungarian. Would the dog return the item that made its owner look happy?

No. All of the dogs fetched the toy. “Thus dogs either are not able to distinguish between their own and the owners’ preference or they failed to inhibit the ‘wrong’ response,” said Flóra Szánthó, a co-author on the paper. So, the team decided to try a different tactic.

“Fetching was clearly not a good choice to measure dogs’ sensitivity to others’ preferences for several reasons,” said Eniko Kubinyi, lead author of the study, “since their own favourite object was in reach, the dogs had little incentive to factor in the owner’s choice in their responses.

“We assumed that if the same objects were out of reach, they would stimulate what appears to be ‘showing’ behaviour in the dogs and they would direct more attention towards their owners’ pick, thereby also weakening the affordance provided by their preferred object.”

In the object preference test, the dog's owner gave facial expressions to suggest which object made them happy or disgusted © E. Kubinyi
In the object preference test, the dog’s owner gave facial expressions to suggest which object made them happy or disgusted © E. Kubinyi

The team repeated the task, this time with 51 dogs, asking the owners to instead place the two objects out of reach, on a windowsill in the lab. Half the dogs watched their owners give the bracelet a happy look, while the others saw the toy as their owners’ preference.

This time, when told to hozd, the dogs’ gaze was monitored. “The dogs looked at the favoured toy when their owner had previously responded to it with a happy face, [while] in the other group they looked the same amount of time at the bracelet and the toy,” said co-author Ivaylo Iotchev. The owner’s expression influenced the dogs behaviour.

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“It is not certain that this influence is the result of inferred and shared representations,” said Kubinyi. “We have not found conclusive evidence that dogs, similarly to 18-month-old toddlers, understand the subjectivity of the desire, i.e., that different people can have different attitudes toward the same object.

“If they indeed infer the owner’s preference, they might not understand fetching as an act of offering an object to a human, or response inhibition, an important aspect of cognitive control, was not sufficiently strong to overwrite the animals’ own preference.

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“What is certain, is that this study is the first to show that dogs are sensitive to their owners’ choice even though they prefer to fetch their favourite toy when it is in reach.”

Why do dogs chase their tails?

Sometimes it’s a side effect of hunting behaviour in an animal too dim to work out that the tail always escapes. But tail chasing can become obsessional.

Bored dogs that don’t get enough exercise may use it to get their owner’s attention – even angry attention can be rewarding. Others, especially terriers, may have inherited it.

There are many dogs taking antidepressants to control their compulsive tail chasing.

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