We humans share a special bond with dogs. The relationship is so strong that we can train our pooches to do everything from sniffing out explosives to acting as a guide for the visually impaired. But do our dogs know us well enough to be able to recognise our intentions, or are they only capable of responding to basic commands?
Being able to recognise another’s intentions is a key component of Theory of Mind – the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others that has long been regarded as uniquely human.
To investigate this question, a team of researchers based at the Max Planck Institute in Germany set up an experiment to test how 51 dogs of different breeds reacted when food treats were withheld, both intentionally and by accident.
They placed a transparent barrier with a small gap cut in it for passing food treats through between the dogs and a human tester and then observed the dogs’ behaviour in three different scenarios based on a principle known as the unable vs unwilling paradigm.
The idea of the unable vs unwilling paradigm is to exam whether test subjects react differently towards a human experimenter who either intentionally (the unwilling condition) or unintentionally (the unable condition) withholds rewards from them.
Read more about dogs:
- Born to be mild: puppies have an innate ability to understand humans
- Will my dog get lonely after I go back to the office after lockdown?
- Why do dogs eat grass (and poop)?
In the first scenario, the human tester deliberately withdrew the treat and placed it in front of themselves. In the second they ‘tried’ to pass the treat through the gap but ‘accidentally’ dropped it. And in the third they tried to pass the treat across to the dog but were unable to as the gap was blocked. In all three scenarios the treat remained on the tester’s side of the barrier.
In each case, the team measured the length of time the dogs waited for before approaching the treat. They found that the dogs waited longer and were more likely to sit or lie down – actions often interpreted as appeasing behaviours - when the treat was withdrawn. This indicates that they were aware they were not supposed to have the treat, which in turn suggests that they were able to interpret the intentions of the human, the researchers say.
“If dogs are indeed able to ascribe intention-in-action to humans, we would expect them to show different reactions in the unwilling condition compared to the two unable conditions,” said Dr Juliane Bräuer. “As it turns out, this is exactly what we observed.”
The team say that although the experiment does suggest that dogs can recognise the intentions of our actions, further study is needed to rule out the possibility of other effects being at play, such as the dogs reading unintentional behavioural cues on the part of experimenters or prior knowledge on the dogs’ part due to previous training.
Reader Q&A: Why do dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them?
Asked by: Toby Graham, Shrewsbury
A dog’s range of hearing is wider than ours but not as accurate. Perking their ears up while tilting their heads helps them pinpoint where noises are coming from more quickly. It also helps them to hear and interpret the tone of our voices, and pick out familiar words such as ‘walkies’.
Dog behaviour expert Dr Stanley Coren believes that dogs with shorter muzzles tilt their heads less because they have a better view of our facial expressions and are therefore not so reliant on their ears to understand us.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.