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Dogs take their owners' preferences into consideration

A team of researchers at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) has demonstrated that dogs are sensitive to the preferences of humans, but usually follow their own desires. The study was designed to investigate whether dog behavior is influenced or guided by human preferences.

The experts report that while fetching behavior remained unaffected by what humans wanted most, dogs still took the preferences of their owners into serious consideration. When a person expressed excitement over an object, the dogs were found to focus their gaze on it.

Even though the dogs still chose their own preferred objects when they had the option to fetch, they seemed to clearly perceive the preferences of their owners. It has been challenging for experts to determine whether dogs are actually aware of the human emotions that they are known to pick up on so well.   

“There is no shortage of attempts to unveil the putative mind-reading abilities of dogs, but no single study has been convincing enough on its own, so over the years we have broken down the big question into smaller, more tangible goals,” said study co-author Dr. Ádám Miklósi.

One of the main goals has been to investigate how dogs respond to expressions signaling the preferences of humans. 

“We knew that dogs respond to humans signaling their preference, but in previous studies, the dogs’ own priorities were not accounted for. In particular, we did not know how conflicting preferences between the dogs and the owner influence the behavior of dogs,” said study lead author Eniko Kubinyi. “18-month-old children recognize that their own preference might differ from that of others and they understand how desire can be inferred from emotional expressions, but 14-month-olds do not. We wanted to test where dogs are on this scale.”

Kubinyi explained that fetching was clearly not a good choice to measure dogs’ sensitivity to the preferences of others – for several reasons. 

“Since their own favorite object was in reach, the dogs had little incentive to factor in the owner’s choice in their responses. We assumed that if the same objects were out of reach, they would stimulate what appears to be ‘showing’ behavior in the dogs and they would direct more attention towards their owners’ pick, thereby also weakening the affordance provided by their preferred object.” 

To test out their theory, the researchers placed toys and bracelets up on a windowsill where the dogs could not reach them. A group of 51 dogs witnessed their owner displaying happy expressions toward either the toy or the bracelet, and disgusted faces at the other. The researchers measured how long the animals would gaze at their human’s preferred object.

“In this case, the dogs looked at the favored toy when their owner had previously responded to it with a happy face. In the other group they looked the same amount of time at the bracelet and the toy,” explained study co-author Ivaylo Iotchev. 

The findings confirm that the owner’s preference affected the dog’s behavior. Kubinyi said that it is not clear whether this influence is the result of inferred and shared representations.

“We have not found conclusive evidence that dogs, similarly to one and a half.year-old toddlers, understand the subjectivity of the desire, i.e., that different people can have different attitudes toward the same object,” explained Kubinyi.

“If they indeed infer the owner’s preference, they might not understand fetching as an act of offering an object to a human, or response inhibition, an important aspect of cognitive control, was not sufficiently strong to overwrite the animals’ own preference.” 

“What is certain, is that this study is the first to show that dogs are sensitive to their owners’ choice even though they prefer to fetch their favorite toy when it is in reach.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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