A new study has found dogs are better at understanding our intentions than previously thought and know when they’re being denied treats on purpose.
Researchers either withheld treats or fumbled and dropped them in the study and dogs seemed to know when the researchers were just being “clumsy” and when they were being “mean.”
The team, from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, used the so-called unwilling-unable paradigm to study 96 dogs of various breeds and ages.
It measures whether an animal is sensitive to human intentions, for example whether they are unwilling, or simply unable, to do something.
An experimenter sat inside a transparent box that had holes in the front panel, separating them from the dog. When the dog approached, the experimenter attempted to feed them. The food was sometimes dropped and at other times withheld.
The dogs seemed to know when the explorers were just being “awkward” and when they were being “domestic.”
The team from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna found dogs know the difference.
The experiment is similar to one designed to determine whether human babies can read adults’ intentions. The researchers attempted to offer treats to a number of dogs, then either “clumsily” dropped the snack or teased the canines—snatching it away just before the pup could chow down on it.
Even though the basic hand gestures were the same, the dogs appeared more frustrated with the teasing condition, suggesting they understand the difference between our good and ill intent.
To conduct the work, a member of the put herself in jail. Or at least that’s what it might have looked like to the dogs.
In a lab room at the university, Maud Steinmann, then an undergraduate biology student at the HAS University of Applied Sciences, sat in a rectangular box with mesh on the sides and with a clear plastic panel in front of her. In the center of the panel, the team had drilled a golf ball–size hole.
The researchers then led a succession of 48 pet dogs of various breeds into the room. Eight cameras at various locations recorded them, and 3D tracking software assisted by artificial intelligence captured every movement, from a twitch of the tail to a slight shift in muzzle direction.
Then the mind games began. In one set of experiments, Steinmann held a piece of sausage near the hole, but every time the dog approached, the snack “slipped” out of her fingers, falling back inside the cage.
Next up, she again held the treat to the hole, but jerked it away as soon as the dog’s snout got close. In a final test, the team covered the hole; Steinmann tried to push the treat through, but she couldn’t. Each trial lasted about 30 seconds.
The dogs seemed to know when they were being messed with. They stuck around in front of the plastic barrier for 89% of the trial, on average, when the researcher kept dropping the treat, the team reports this month on the preprint server bioRxiv. “Dumb human is trying her best—but she’s clumsy,” they seemed to be thinking.
When Steinmann teased them, however, the dogs were quicker to turn away, sticking around for 78% of the trial.
And when the hole was blocked, the pups spent a mere 64% of the trial time near the plastic barrier, quickly moving to the side of the cage, where it looked like they could get the treat from a different angle. “She wants to give me food, but she can’t,” the dogs may be thinking. “So I’m going to try to get it another way.”
The dogs’ tails also gave clues to their mindset. The 3D tracking software showed the animals tended to wag their tails more on the right side of their bodies when the researcher was fumbling.