Domestic dogs respond with more patience when humans awkwardly leave a treat out of reach than when it is intentionally taken away, suggesting that canines can understand human intentions.
25 January 2023
Dogs can understand when humans mean well, even if they don’t get what they want from us. Prior to this work, the ability to distinguish between a human being unwilling or unable to perform a task had only been found in nonhuman primates.
The close social bond between humans and canines is well established, but researchers have limited understanding of whether and how dogs understand human intent. To see if domestic dogs can distinguish between the intentional and unintentional actions of strangers, Christoph Völter of the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine in Austria and colleagues conducted human trials offering dogs food while tracking the dogs’ body movements. animals with eight chambers.
Each dog and human were separated by a clear plastic panel with holes through which a slice of sausage could fit. In 96 trials of 48 domestic dogs, human participants teased the dog by holding it up and removing a treat, or awkwardly pretended to drop the piece of sausage on its own side of the panel before the dog could eat it.
In all tests, the dogs had to wait 30 seconds before finally getting their reward, during which the team followed their reaction. A machine learning algorithm trained to detect and track specific points on the dogs’ bodies allowed the researchers to analyze the dogs’ body language.
They found that when humans faked dropping a treat compared to intentionally removing it, the dogs responded with more patience: they made more eye contact with the experimenter, wagged their tails more, and stayed closer to the transparent barrier, suggesting that they were still waiting for a gift. Dogs that were teased sat, lay down, and backed off the barrier more often. Results were similar across different dog breeds, ages, and sexes.
In the awkward test, the dogs also wagged their tails more to the right side, a behavior known to be associated with happy, relaxed dogs. “They have more positive emotions towards the clumsy experimenter, which could indicate that they really understand that the experimenter is willing, but he is too clumsy, to give them food,” says Völter.
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