A new study published in the journal Biology Letters has found that dogs have a sense of the way objects should behave. A research team from the University of Veterinary Medicine discovered that when watching 3D animations of objects breaking Newton’s basic laws of physics, dogs’ pupils dilated and their attention increased. According to the scientists, this shows that dogs are sensitive to the principle of “contact causality,” one of the fundamental principles allowing us to make sense of our physical environment.
The animations the dogs watched involved balls on a computer screen that bounced in various ways. Some of them bounced without an external force being applied, thus without contact causality. The researchers found that dogs spent more time with wide open pupils if balls where rolling on their own, suggesting that they may have been surprised when the objects defied the laws of physics.
According to study lead author Christoph Völter, an expert in Comparative Cognition at the University of Veterinary Medicine, having a basic sense of physical causality is “the starting point of learning.”
“You have expectations about the environment – regularities in your environment that are connected to physics – and then something happens that doesn’t fit. And now you pay attention. And now you try to see what’s going on,” he explained. This capacity appears to develop in humans and chimpanzees around six months of age.
However, scientists stress the fact that these results do not show that dogs have an understanding of physics: they only have an implicit understanding of the physical environment.
“This is sort of (an) intuitive understanding expectation,” Völter said. “But that’s also the case for humans, right? The infant at seven months of age has expectations about the environment and detects if these expectations are violated. I think they build up on these expectations, and build a richer understanding of their environment based on these expectations.”
Further research is needed to clarify at what age dogs begin to have this intuitive understanding, and what factors (such as age, breed etc.) may influence how their implicit expectations about object interactions involving contact causality are structured.