Cognitive research dogs distinguish intent from supervision

You obey “Sit!” , “sat down!” , “Come here!”. Dogs seem to understand us – but how far does an animal’s mind really go? Now researchers have shed light on the extent to which four-legged friends can empathize with us. Test results suggest that dogs understand the difference between intentional and unintentional behavior in humans – they adjust to the intent in question. According to scientists, this is a very complex feat of their social intelligence.

What do other people know, want, or feel? The ability to understand what is happening in the other person is a fundamental component of human social behavior. According to studies, the ability described in the context of the so-called “theory of mind” develops in early childhood and then takes increasingly complex forms. For a long time this was considered an exclusive feat of our highly developed mind. But there is now also animal evidence of mental attribution ability. In addition to great apes and corvids, aspects of this cognitive talent are also found in dogs. Scientists working with Julian Breuer of the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena have now discovered how far it extends.

Unable vs Unwilling Test

Her focus was on the four friends’ ability to understand our intentions. Specifically, the researchers investigated the question: Do dogs understand when people act intentionally or unintentionally, and do they therefore have this core component of a theory of mind? In the study, scientists used a so-called “unwilling versus unable” test in dogs for the first time. It is used in children to record differences in reactions when they encounter someone who is either unable or unwilling to do something. Prawer and her colleagues have now used the test procedure on 51 special family dogs.

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Everyone faced three scenarios in which the dog and the tester were separated from each other by a transparent wall that the animal could theoretically roam through. The dogs were first identified by the fact that they were given individual pieces of food through an opening in the section. In the “I don’t want” technique, the tester pulled the piece of food in a deliberate motion and placed it on the floor in front of him. In the “Can’t – clumsy” variant, the person tried to pass the food through the hatch, but then failed due to folly: the reward “accidentally” fell to the floor – out of the dog’s direct reach. However, in another “cannot prevent” version, the intended delivery was not possible because the hatch in the section was suddenly closed. In all three cases, the food ended up being cut in the same place in front of the experimenter. Now the question was: Do dogs always react the same way?

Intention causes frequency

“If dogs could in fact attribute intent to humans, we would expect them to show different responses in the ‘I don’t want’ situation compared to the two ‘Can’t’ situations. And that was really the case,” says Bräuer. As the researchers explained, the difference was how long the dogs waited before approaching the missing reward by running around the collar. They waited longer in the “I don’t want” state than in the “Can’t” state. Researchers see why: When dogs recognize intent, they hesitate to take actions that go against a human’s will. However, according to the explanation, there is no reason to hesitate when it comes to the food that the investigators actually wanted to serve them but could not.

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According to the scientists, more behavioral differences in different conditions support this explanatory approach: in the “I don’t want” condition, the dogs sat or lay down a lot – actions that are interpreted as appeasing gestures when evaluating the dog’s behavior. In addition, test animals often stop wagging their tails if they are deliberately prevented from eating. “The dogs in our study reacted distinctly differently,” says first author Britta Scheunmann.

However, the scientists point out that they have not yet been able to conclusively prove their explanatory approach to the observed differences in behaviour. What actually happens in dogs’ heads now needs better elucidation in further investigations. However, they came to the conclusion that “the results of this study are the first important indications that dogs have the ability to recognize intent.”

Source: Max Planck Institute for the History of Human History, specialized article: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-94374-3

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