Dogs Try to Read Their Owners’ Minds When There’s an Opportunity for Food

There are some things we just automatically know about our beloved canine family members. For example, we know that dogs love their owners, that they love food and that they love to sniff practically everything.

What we may not know about dogs, however, is that they’re pretty good at understanding our thoughts and emotions. This may be especially true in situations where they could potentially get a treat from a human.

In a recent study published in the journal Animal Cognition, cognitive biologists were able to prove that dogs could see things from our perspective by learning to interpret our behaviors and using that information to anticipate our intentions. The ability to take on the perspectives of others, referred to as “Theory of Mind” in humans, is a significant sign of social intelligence.

The biologists conducted experiments using food to test the reactions of dogs. In one experiment, two human participants were involved. One person knew where a dog treat would be hidden (the “knower”) while the other person wouldn’t know where it was hidden (the “guesser”).

A screen was used to block the dogs’ view of the knower while they hid the treat. While the knower hid the treat, the guesser looked away so they couldn’t see where the knower was hiding the treat.

Once the screen was taken down, the dogs saw several containers presented before them — each of which was disguised with the scent of meat to prevent the dogs from being able to use their sense of smell to easily identify which container had the treat. The knower pointed to the container with the treat in it while the guesser pointed to an empty one.

The dogs decided to go toward the knower 70 percent of the time. This suggests that they have the ability to understand who knows the hiding spot (and perhaps also who doesn’t know it).

In a second experiment, a third human participant was brought in to fill the containers with treats. The knower stood by, watching where the containers were placed while the guesser also stood by, but once again looked away.

When the knower pointed to the container that was filled with treats while the guesser pointed to an empty one, the dogs once again went toward the knower 70 percent of the time. In addition to judging who knows where the treats are, these results also suggest that dogs follow the gaze of the knower rather than the guesser.

Although the study doesn’t prove that dogs have Theory of Mind the same way humans do, it does prove that they have their own special dog-like way of taking on the perspectives of others, which the biologists describe as “geometrical-gaze following and perspective-taking.” This is almost certainly due to thousands of years of domestication as well as individual experience.

Previous research has shown that dogs can take it even further by manipulating us to get what they want. When dogs were paired up with two human participants — one who gave treats and one who kept treats — they quickly learned who was deceiving them.

When the dogs were allowed to lead each participant to one of three boxes that included a delicious sausage, a biscuit, or nothing at all, they would usually lead the withholding participant to the empty one — presumably understanding that they wouldn’t get what was in the box from this particular participant. When the dogs did the same with the generous participant, they usually led them to the box with the sausage, understanding they would probably be rewarded with it by this participant.

Dogs, it seems, are so much smarter than we think. So go ahead and hide a treat while your family members or roommates are in the house to see how your dog reacts!

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

65 comments

Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Jim V
Jim V1 years ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

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Kay M
Kay M2 years ago

Good evening and thank you for this article - very informative- in our house the precious fur baby -knows who they can beg food from and who will always say no- so when we sit down to eat- the fur baby sits under my chair and not the rest of the family- because I am a push over-for her look- or sad face begging for a treat- sincerely KAY M.

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Marija M
Marija M2 years ago

tks

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Carl R
Carl R2 years ago

thanks!!!

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natasha s
Past Member 2 years ago

Pups are adorable with those trat begging eyes!

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 years ago

Cute photo.

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 years ago

Thanks.

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Mostapha Z
Mostapha Z2 years ago

I love the adorable picture under the article.

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