Dogs are able to decipher human intention, study finds

Katie Hoare
By Katie Hoare,
updated on Sep 2, 2021

Dogs are able to decipher human intention, study finds

As dog owners, we often think our dogs truly understand us. And it turns out, science thinks you’re right too

From the adorable head tilt to the excitable bark, our furry friends have long shown their abilities to understand human behaviour. And researchers have now discovered fresh data that suggests dogs are far savvier than we first thought, and are able to tell whether human actions are deliberate or accidental.

Previous research has suggested that dogs can track human attention and may respond to certain cues such as pointing or using a whistle, but it was unclear whether dogs truly grasp the notion of human intention.

Now scientists in Germany suggest dogs are aware of our intention, and theory of mind - the ability to apply different mental states to both yourself and others based on their actions to help understand them - was previously thought to be uniquely human, and can now be attributed to our canine companions.

Researchers discovered this capacity by using a treat-based test, attempting to pass treats to a dog through a gap in the screen. Researchers set up three conditions: in the first, they tried to pass the treat to the dog but ‘accidentally’ dropped it on the floor on their side of the screen, saying "Oops!". Secondly, they tried to give the treat, but the gap in the screen was blocked, and thirdly, they offered a treat but withdrew it, saying "Haha!".

The idea of this experiment was to decipher whether the dog displayed key differences in behaviour when the treat was being intentionally withheld. Based on the analysis of video recordings of 51 dogs, results revealed that the dogs waited longer before walking around the screen to get the treat directly in the case of the third case of sudden withdrawal than for the other two situations. They were also more likely to stop wagging their tail and sit or lie down.

“This indicates that dogs indeed distinguish intentional actions from unintentional behaviour,” writes the team.

“Our findings provide important initial evidence that dogs may have at least one aspect of theory of mind: the capacity to recognise intention-in-action.” Other animals that show this capability include chimpanzees, African grey parrots and horses.

“Distinguishing between intentional and unintentional behaviour within one’s species brings critical survival advantages,” comments Dr Suilin Lavelle, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. “Being able to generalise this to another species, albeit one that co-evolved with you lends further support to the claim that dogs are distinguishing the behaviours based on their intentions rather than some other cue.”

We didn’t think our four-legged friends could get any better but it just goes to show that four-legged friends really do paws for thought.

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