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Dogs May Understand the Human Point of View

A new study shows that dogs make decisions about stealing food based on whether the lights are on or off. By Claudia Bensimoun


Wrigley doesn't care if the lights are on AND his owner is photographing him. He still takes the food! Photo courtesy of Brenna Fender

Call it a revelation. A new study shows that dogs are much more capable of understanding different situations from a human's point of view than previously thought. What have they learned? That domestic dogs are much more likely to steal food when they think that nobody is watching.

The study reveals that dogs were four times more likely to steal food that had been forbidden when the lights were turned off so that humans in the room could not see them. It backs the idea that many dog owners have known, that dogs are smart and that they understand humans. Nonetheless, this idea has not been tested by science in the past.

Dr.Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth's Department of Psychology, has demonstrated that when humans forbade dogs from taking food, those dogs were four times more likely to disobey in a dark room than in a lit room. This suggests that dogs consider what a human can or cannot see. The study, which conducted tests on 84 dogs, was published in Animal Cognition.

This study was the first to focus on whether dogs differentiate between different levels of light when they are developing strategies to steal food. Experimenters also wanted to test whether dogs had a flexible understanding that could show how much they understood a human's point of view. Could dogs adapt their behavior in response to the changed circumstances of their humans? "That's incredible because it implies dogs understand that humans can't see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective. Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that's us thinking, not them. These results suggest that humans might be right, where dogs are concerned, but we still can't be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others' minds. It has always been assumed only humans had this ability," says Dr.Kaminski via Science Daily News.

The researchers found that when the lights were turned off, dogs in a room with their humans were much more likely to disobey and steal forbidden food. The study suggests that it is "unlikely that the dogs simply forgot that the human was in the room" when there was no light. One suggestion is that it seems that dogs were able to differentiate between when the human was unable or able to see them. These findings are an important step in our understanding of a dog's ability to think and to understand, which in turn, would be of use to working dogs and dog owners.

Dr.Kaminski designed the experiments with enough variations so that any false associations could be avoided, such as the dogs used in the research beginning to associate sudden darkness with someone giving them food. For this study, a series of experiments under varied light conditions were performed. Dr.Kaminski tested 42 females and 42 male domestic dogs aged one year or older. These dogs had to be comfortable without their humans in the room, even in the complete darkness. They also chose dogs that had a high interest in food. "Some dogs are more interested by the food than others," says Dr.Kaminski via Science Daily.

With every test, a human forbade the dogs to take the food. Nonetheless, when the room was dark, the dogs took more food and took it more quickly than when the room was lit. The tests were complex and involved many variables to rule out that dogs were basing their decisions to take the food on simple associative rules, such as "dark means food." Dr. Kaminski says, "The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it's safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand the human's perspective."

According to Dr.Kaminski, "Dogs' understanding may be limited to the here and now, rather than on any higher understanding and more research is needed to identify what mechanisms are controlling dogs' behavior."

Previous studies have shown that chimpanzees have a sophisticated understanding and seem to know when someone else can or cannot see them. Chimps also remember what others have seen in the past. Scientific studies have not revealed how sophisticated dog's understanding is in comparison to chimpanzees. Nonetheless many earlier research papers have found that, for dogs, a human's eyes are an important signal when deciding how to behave, and that they respond more enthusiastically to attentive humans, than inattentive ones.

Resources

1. http://www.port.ac.uk/departments/academic/psychology/latestnews/title,172370,en.html

2. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/02/130218-dogs-animals-science-mind-smart/

3. http://www.juliane-kaminski.de/index.htm

 

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