Your Dog May Know If You Have Done Something On Purpose, or Just Screwed Up

In the long history of living with humans, dogs have developed a range of skills that can connect with humans, such as that every time they understand commands such as “sit”, “lie down”, “roll over” etc., it proves that they can understand human behavior. But it is not clear whether this is because dogs are able to understand human intentions, or respond to human behavior.

To try to probe what dogs might be able to comprehend about people’s intentions, the researchers in Germany conducted an experiment that studied how dogs reacted to the experimenter’s intentional or unintentional refusal to give them a food reward.

The researchers found that the dogs’ responses varied depending on whether the experimenter’s actions were intentional or not. They believed that dogs can distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior.

The researchers conducted an experiment using “Unable vs. Unwilling”. By observing whether subjects reacted differently when human experimenters intentionally (subjectively reluctantly) or unintentionally (objectively impermissively) refused to give food rewards. Although the “Unable vs. Unwilling” paradigm has previously been recognized as an established paradigm in cognitive studies in humans and animals, it has never been used in canine research.

The experiments involved 51 dogs, the canines and human experimenter are separated by a transparent glass partition, and the experimenter would feed them tasty treats through a gap in a glass partition. The dogs could see them there, tantalizingly close, on the floor.

The experiment showed that this whole set of circumstances was an unusual one for the dogs, because their owners most likely would not be in the habit of teasing them with food and refusing to give it to them. The way the dogs reacted might really suggest that they are able to understand intention, at least in this simple set-up.

In humans, a basic understanding of others’ intentions seems to be present in early infancy. For example, if toddlers see an adult trying to put two parts of an object together, but clumsily be unable to do it, the children will imitate the action and possibly put the object together successfully. So it really seems that they understand that some people fail, but they understand what they intended to do.

In this experiment, the dog’s behavior manifested itself markedly differently in different situations, depending on whether the human experimenter’s behavior was intentional or unintentional, suggesting that dogs may indeed be able to recognize human intent to act.

However, the team acknowledged that their findings may be questioned by other researchers, so further research is needed to explain other possible scenarios, such as some behavioral cues from the experimenter, or knowledge transfer from previous training of dogs.

Nonetheless, the findings provided important preliminary evidence that dogs may have at least one aspect of the theory of mind, namely the ability to recognize intentions in actions, the researchers concluded.

Published On: December 21st, 2022Categories: Dog knowledge