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Canine Connection: Study Explores How Dogs Think and Learn About Human Behavior.

New research suggests that the way our canine companions respond to the level of our attentiveness is linked to a combination of specific cues, context, and previous experience. By Claudia Bensimoun

We often feel that our dogs have the ability to understand our behavior. But how do dogs learn to beg for food or to behave when we're not watching? According to Monique A. R. Udell, Ph.D and her team from the University of Florida, the way that our dogs respond to our level of attentiveness is indicative of the ways dogs think and learn about our behavior. Their research suggests that a combination of specific cues, context, and previous experience contribute to how dogs respond to the level of a person's attentiveness. Our canine companions respond and understand human body language, verbal commands, and attentional states. Because a dog's performance on tasks such as begging may vary according to the visible stimulus presented to the dog combined with the state of human attentiveness, one does tend to question the origin of perspective-taking behavior in domesticated pet dogs. 

Udell questions whether domestic dogs have a theory of mind. Theory of mind interpretations have in the past led to suggestions that "an animal with a theory of mind believes that mental states play a causal role in generating behavior and infers the presence of mental states in others by observing their appearance and behavior under various circumstances." (Springer, 2011, p.289)

Although dogs cannot read our minds, this new research seems to prove that man's best friend might just be able to understand human behavior or have theory of mind, the ability to infer what their owners or handlers know. The idea for this research, which was published in Springer's journal Learning and Behavior in 2011, was based on the research by Udell and her team.

The most recent research has identified a remarkable range of human-like social behaviors in our canine companions. This includes the ability to respond to human body language, verbal commands, and to attentional states. The question is, how do dogs do this? Do dogs infer humans' mental states by observing our appearance and behavior under various circumstances, and then respond accordingly? Or do our dogs learn from experience by responding to environmental cues, the presence or absence of certain stimuli, or even human behavioral cues? Udell's research sheds some light on these questions.

Udell and her team researched the idea that domestic dogs who live around humans and interact with them on a daily basis were good at solving social and cognitive problems that were often thought to be uniquely human. "While other researchers have proposed that dogs' success on these kinds of tasks may indicate the evolution of a special 'human-like' social cognition or mind in dogs, we believe our dogs instead develop their human-like social skills as a result of living in human-based environments," said Udell. Through her research, Udell found that our canine companions were more sensitive to stimuli given in their own home environment.

Udell and her team carried out two experiments and compared the performance of domestic dogs, shelter dogs, and wolves given the opportunity to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. The researchers wanted to find out whether the rearing and living environments of the animal, whether a shelter or human home, or the species itself (dog or wolf), had the greater impact on the animal's performance.

One of the most interesting findings was that wolves, like domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. Both species (domesticated and non-domesticated) have the capacity to behave in accordance with a human's attentional state. The study also found that both wolves and domesticated dogs were able to rapidly improve their performance with practice and when rewarded with treats, attention, and other positive reinforcers.

The researchers also found that all dogs were not sensitive to visual cues of a human's attention in the same way. Dogs from the same home environment were more sensitive to visual stimuli from attentive humans, whereas dogs from a shelter were less sensitive to the same visual stimuli from attentive humans. Dogs with less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging test. 

According to Udell and her team, "These results suggest that a dogs' ability to follow human actions stems from a willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with conditioning to follow the limbs and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement. The type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented, and previous experience are all important."

Udell's findings showed that our canine companions were more likely to beg for food from a person looking at them, as opposed to someone with their back turned or reading a book. Human- socialized wolves, however, did not beg from people that had their backs turned, but were just as likely to beg from a person that was reading a book, as someone looking right at them. Dogs living in a shelter had the worst performance outcomes. This study demonstrates that domestication is not essential for performance under all conditions and that our canine companions are sensitive to human attentional states in many different situations.

Dogs were likely the first animals to become domesticated and to have shared a close bond with humans over thousands of years. Therefore,the domesticated dog's behavior has come under much scientific scrutiny. Most of the research by Dr. Udell and her team has been inspired by research in human cognitive psychology and suggests that our canine companions are in so many ways more human-like than any other animal species, including nonhuman primates. Behavior analysts add their expertise to the study of all canine behavior. This includes adding objective analyses of all experimental data and effectively integrating all new knowledge into the applied work with dogs.


Photos courtesy of Dr. Monica Udell.

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.


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