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Dogs React To Goal-Directed Behavior in a Surprising Way!

A new study has found that dogs can perceive goal-directed behavior in humans.

by Claudia Bensimoun

If you're an agility competitor, then you know that your dog is smart. Handlers are always curious to see just how smart their agility dogs really are, and how they respond to goal-directed behavior. This helps with training for agility, and seeing if your pooch has what it takes to be successful.

According to a new research paper by Drs. Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Maria Ceretta, and Emanuela Prato-Previde at the University of Milan, Italy, dogs respond to a person with a new object differently than one interacting with a known object. This study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In past research it's been demonstrated that dogs are very sensitive to new stimuli and communicative cues. Researchers have found that non-human primates may be able to perceive goal-directed behavior, most especially dogs that are sensitive to human communicative cues. With this research, Dr.Sarah Marshall-Pescini and colleagues found that dogs will look at a new object and respond to people that are doing something important in the same way as an infant would. In this research no communicative cues were used with the dogs.

According to the study, past research demonstrates that children develop and pay close attention to what their caregivers are doing in relation to how this affects them. The researchers used the Woodward infant test that had been used on five-month-old infants to see whether domesticated dogs would attribute goal-directed behavior to a person, and not to an object (a black box), while the person was holding the box. The researchers found that dogs could perform the test at the same level as human infants.

The Research Methods

  • 50 domesticated dogs
  • A black box
  • A globe
  • A new object - watering can
  • The Woodward test for five-month old infants

All the dogs were given time to get used to their new environments while kenneled in a new location. The dogs had to undergo two sets of trials.

  • In the first situation, the person had to interact with a black box in a new location, and in the second situation, the person interacted with a new object that was in the same location.
  • During the habituation phase, where the domesticated dogs were getting used to their new surroundings, the dogs watched the experimenter interact with one of the two objects.
  • The dogs had to first do a number of trials to reach habituation. After that, the dogs were presented with three new side trials where the experimenter interacted with the same object that was placed in a totally different location.
  • The dogs were then presented with repetitions of the new goal trial where the experimenter would interact with the new object, a watering can.


  • The dogs reacted in a similar fashion to infants. They tended to look at the person holding the new object in the same location, instead of looking at the same object that was moved to a new location.
  • The researchers found no difference in the results using the black box or the new object.
  • The researchers found that the results demonstrated that a non-primate species might be able to see someone else's actions as goal-directed.
  • The researchers also found that dogs may view the actions of humans, but not the black boxes, as goal-directed.
  • More studies are needed to ensure that the results stem from a dog's cognitive processing abilities.

"Novelty was perceived differently for the animate and inanimate agents: in fact dogs looked longer at the person when she suddenly interacted with a different object but did not show the same pattern of looking behavior when the black box changed objects. This suggests that dogs formed an expectation about the object directed goals of the human, but not of the inanimate object." This research paper demonstrates that dogs may show a similar response to that of infants and can perceive human actions as goal-directed.


PLOS ONE. (2014, September 17). Dogs respond to goal-directed behavior at similar level to infants. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2015 from

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.

Photo credit: Sully via photopin (license)


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