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Can dogs understand the intention behind our actions?

Everyone knows that dogs can be conditioned, or trained, to do basic tasks. Due to the co-evolution of humans and dogs, our canine companions seem able to do many things for us. Sitting, staying, assisting disabled people, and retrieving are all well known canine skills. A question that many people may not consider is whether dogs can understand the human intention behind a command.

Understanding intention in others is part of a “theory of mind,” which involves the ability to think about mental states – both your own and those of others. This ability has often been assumed to be unique to humans. But now, new research from the Max Planck Institute presents evidence that dogs may have at least some components of a theory of mind. 

The study was focused on 51 dogs, who were each tested in three different scenarios. The dogs were placed on one side of a transparent barrier with human researchers on the other side. The experimenters withheld a treat from the dogs – either intentionally or unintentionally.

When the humans appeared simply unwilling to give the treat, they placed it in front of themselves. In two other scenarios, the researchers appeared unable to give the treat, either because they fumbled it at the gap in the barrier and dropped it or because the barrier was blocked. 

“If dogs are indeed able to ascribe intention-in-action to humans, we would expect them to show different reactions in the unwilling condition compared to the two unable conditions. As it turns out, this is exactly what we observed,” explained Dr. Juliane Bräuer.

The dogs waited longer in hopes of a treat when the human seemed unwilling to give it compared to when they were unable. The canine test subjects were also more likely to lay or sit down – behaviors interpreted as appeasing – and they stopped wagging their tails when a person seemed to be intentionally withholding a reward.

“The dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional,” said study first author Britta Schünemann. “This suggests that dogs may indeed be able to identify humans’ intention-in-action,” added co-author Hannes Rakoczy.

The researchers know their study is likely to be met with skepticism. “Nevertheless, the findings present important initial evidence that dogs may have at least one aspect of Theory of Mind: The capacity to recognize intention-in-action.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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