A psychology professor at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., Juliane Kaminski, has just published a study that, she says, provides scientific evidence of what many of us have observed and suspected, that domestic dogs have an understanding of what we humans are thinking and intending to do.
Earlier research has found that dogs look to humans’ eyes as a signal when making decisions about what to do and also that they “respond more willingly to attentive humans, than inattentive ones.” But having the ability to know what someone else is thinking — having “theory of mind” — has been assumed to be an ability that only humans have had (though research has shown that crows and chimpanzees “seem to know when someone else can or can’t see them and can also remember what others have seen in the past”).
A Series of Experiments To Test Dogs’ Cognition
To prove what many have had a hunch about, Kaminski (you can her and her dog Ambula on the university’s website) had to devise a way of testing the dogs to show that they can grasp a human point of view. She created a series of different experiments to see whether dogs are more likely to take food when they think nobody can see them.
42 female and 42 male dogs who were a year or older were tested. When forbidden to take food, Kaminski found that the dogs were four times more likely to disobey when they were in a dark room rather than one that had light. This suggests that dogs can discern whether or not human beings can see in the dark. (It’snot certain how well dogs themselves can see in the dark; they very well rely on other sensory information, such as that of smell, to figure out if there is food available.)
For dogs to be able to understand that humans cannot seem them in certain circumstances (e.g., a dark room) is “incredible,” , says Kaminski. It means that dogs have a sense of “the human perspective” and of how this might be different from their own (canine) perspective.
On the University of Portsmouth’s website, people offer some intriguing stories suggesting that their dogs are aware of what they are thinking. People placed a plate of chocolate chip cookies on top of their refrigerator to keep their Irish Setter from helping himself. Not only did he do so when they went out, but was careful to eat only the cookies at the back of the plate so that his snacking would be less likely to be detected.
But Can Humans Really Know What Dogs Are Thinking?
As Kaminski notes, we humans “constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things,” including being “clever and sensitive.” But our saying that an animal has such qualities is “us thinking, not them,” she adds.
Regarding her research, skeptics may ask, how can we know for sure that a dog is not simply associating being in a dark room with it having greater access to food — that “dark” means “food”?
Kaminski indeed took such concerns into account in her experiments. For instance, she tested the dogs in rooms with different amounts of light. Dogs who qualified to be participate in the study had to comfortable without their owners in the room and likely ot be motivated by food.
She also emphasizes that “we still can’t be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others’ minds. In addition, dogs’ understanding of what humans are thinking may be limited to the “here and now, rather than on any higher understanding.” That is, dogs’ ability to grasp a human perspective may be situational, rather than being based on a broader grasp of the human perspective.
Caveats aside, Kaminski’s research (published in Animal Cognition) offers a fascinating window for us humans to consider what animals are thinking about us.
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