Did You Mean to Drop That Treat? Your Dog Knows

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 1, 2021 (HealthDay News) — You probably can’t fool Fido.

New research indicates dogs may know whether you mean to withhold a treat or you’re doing so by accident.

This suggests dogs have a least one aspect of something known as Theory of Mind — an ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, something long regarded as uniquely human.

“If dogs are indeed able to ascribe intention-in-action to humans we would expect them to show different reactions in the unwilling condition compared to the two unable conditions. As it turns out, this is exactly what we observed,” said Juliane Bräuer, an associate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

The findings were published Aug. 31 in the journal Scientific Reports.

For the study, her team assessed how 51 dogs reacted when food rewards were withheld on purpose and by accident.

A researcher offered pieces of food to each dog through a gap in a transparent barrier under three different conditions.

In the “unwilling” condition, the researcher suddenly withdrew the food through the gap and placed it in front of herself. In the “unable-clumsy” condition, the researcher “tried” to pass the food through the gap but “accidentally” dropped it. In the “unable-blocked” condition, the person tried to give the dog food but couldn’t because the gap was blocked.

In all three conditions, the food stayed on the researcher’s side of the barrier.

“The dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional,” said study first author Britta Schünemann of Harvard University in Boston.

“This suggests that dogs may indeed be able to identify humans’ intention-in-action,” said researcher Hannes Rakoczy of the University of Göttingen, in Germany.

Researchers predicted that if dogs can identify human intentions, they would wait longer before approaching food they weren’t supposed to have than when the food was meant for them.

The dogs did wait longer in that case, and were also more likely to sit or lie down — appeasing behaviors — and stop wagging their tails.

More study is needed to determine if other factors such as behavioral cues on researchers’ part or knowledge from prior dog training are factors, researchers said.

More information

The American Kennel Club offers advice on dog training.

SOURCE: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, news release, Sept. 1, 2021