Dogs understand the reasons behind their owners’ actions

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Intelligent dog

A study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany has concluded that dogs are able to understand the reasons behind the actions of their owners. This is called the ‘theory of mind’ by the experts. They can tell the difference between a person deliberately doing something or doing it by accident.

In other words, they can work out what somebody is thinking or feeling. In order to come to this conclusion, they carried out three experiments with 51 pet dogs of various breeds.

Intelligent dog

Dogs understand the reasons behind their owners’ actions. Photo: Image by Redkite from Pixabay .

They erected a clear plastic barrier with a hole in it big enough for a person to pass through tasty food. It was a clear plastic barrier to allow dogs to see through it and what the person was doing.

In one situation the person suddenly withdrew the food after having placed it through the hole. The intention was to show that the person had changed their mind in wanting to give food to the dog. In another situation the intention was to give the impression that the person wanted to give the dog food but accidentally dropped it onto the floor on the opposite side of the clear barrier.

In the final situation the person tried to give the dog food through the hole in the barrier but the barrier closed. The intention there was to show that the person was willing to give the dog food that was prevented in doing so.

In all three situations the dog was able to get the food by going around the barrier. The researchers timed how long it took for the dog to go around the barrier to get at the food. They decided that if dogs were able to identify human intentions they would wait longer when deciding to go and get it when the human had been unwilling to give them the food.

The results did in fact demonstrate this. The dogs waited longer by an average of 33%. On this occasion there were also more likely to stop wagging their tail and sit or lie down. They decided that the dogs were able to distinguish between human actions done on purpose or accidentally.

The authors decided that dogs “may have at least one aspect of theory of mind: the capacity to recognise ‘intention in action’. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Comment: My Thanks to The Times and I would like to see whether cats have the same ability. Historically, dogs are far more likely to be participants in scientific studies such as the one described for the simple reason that they are more manageable. We need to know more about cats. It is entirely plausible that cats are also able to understand the feelings of their human companions behind their actions.

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