Dogs Steal in the Dark
Do dogs understand that people know some things and don’t know other things? Or have they just figured out that they get in trouble for stealing food if our faces are pointing toward them?
As we all know, dogs have amazing social skills. But despite all the folklore about what dogs can learn and know, researchers are just beginning to get a grip on the reality of doggy cognitive skills. Can dogs tell what we’re thinking? It does seem that way sometimes. But hold on.
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In experiments, dogs have behaved as if they can tell where a person’s attention is focused – for instance, they’re more likely to nab a forbidden piece of food if the experimenter isn’t watching. So it looks as if dogs have at least a little of the cognitive ability called “perspective taking,” understanding that other beings have a different point of view than yours. This ability is thought to be unusual among nonhuman animals. Even humans aren’t born with it. But the dog experiments so far have been inconclusive. Dogs might be able to learn that we’re likelier to interrupt food nabbing if our eyes are oriented toward them, yet not understand that that’s because a “you” exists to watch.
Juliane Kaminski and her colleages Andrea Pitsch and Michael Tomasello came up with an cunning plan to test whether dogs really understand what people can see. Their paper is called “Dogs Steal in the Dark,” and this week I’ll tell you what they found.
Are Dogs Just Watching Our Eyes?
The scientists reasoned this way: Suppose the person can see the forbidden food, but the dog can’t see the person’s eyes. If the dog then steals the food, that would be evidence that dogs don’t understand that there’s another mind out there, perceiving things. Instead, the dog just knows that eyes pointed a certain way mean it’s not safe to steal food. He doesn’t understand that a person he can’t see is watching.
But now suppose the person can see the food, the dog can’t see the person’s eyes, and the dog doesn’t steal the food. This implies that the dog isn’t just watching the person’s eyes but on some level understands that there’s another mind out there, taking in information about what the dog is up to.
How the Experiment Worked
And now, the experiment. First, the dogs were pre-tested to make sure they’d comply when told to leave a piece of food alone. Then, Kaminski and her colleagues set up three variations on a theme. In all three, the experimenter put a piece of food on the floor and told the dog to leave it alone. Then the dogs were turned loose. The room the person and dog were in was dark except for an infrared lamp and two regular lights – one on the experimenter’s face, and one on the food. Sometimes only the experimenter’s face was lit, sometimes only the food was lit, sometimes both were lit, and sometimes neither was lit. The dog wore a reflective collar and the results were recorded with a night-view camera. Go, high tech. The photos of the experiment look quite spooky, I have to say.
See Also: How to Stop Your Dog from Stealing Food
The title of the paper is, of course, a spoiler. The dogs in the experiment took the food significantly more often when it was in the dark. And though not all the dogs took the food, the dogs who did took it significantly faster when it was in the dark.
The experimenters, being careful types, also checked to see whether just having a light on the food somehow made it unpleasant to approach the food. To do this, they told the dog not to eat the lit-up food, and then left the dog alone with it. As you might guess, almost every dog left alone with food ate the food. Now hear this, people: Dogs eat unattended food. The name for that behavior is “being a dog.”
Dogs Can “Take Perspective” – Up to a Point
As simple as this experiment sounds, the results are a pretty big deal. They amount to a strong demonstration that, at least in some contexts, dogs are able to understand perspectives other than their own. Up to a point, that is! In 2009, another team of researchers also led by Juliane Kaminski tested what happened when a human asked a dog to fetch a toy. The human watched the placement of one toy, but was out of the room during the placement of another one, so “officially” she only knew about the first toy. When asked to fetch, the dogs in the experiment chose one of the toys at random. In other words, the dogs didn’t take account of the fact that the person only knew about one of the toys, and must have meant to fetch that one.
See Also: Teach Your Dog to Fetch
So dogs’ understanding of other beings’ perspective is pretty limited. Just think about what a human would do in a parallel situation. Say your spouse has been reading Crime and Punishment. He left his copy in the bathroom and as far as he knows, it’s the only book in there. You, though, are aware that there’s also a copy of the new scholarly biography of Kim Kardashian. If your spouse then asks you nicely to get “the book” from the bathroom, you understand he’s thinking of the Dostoyevsky. Your dog, on the other hand, doesn’t get it; he’s just as likely to bring Kim Kardashian.
Beware of the Word “Know”
Conclusion? Dogs may be able to understand what a person can see in the present, but not what information the person got or didn’t get in the recent past. Other research finds that chimpanzees outperform dogs, and it may surprise you to know that certain birds do, too. Am I leaving you with a practical tip? Well, more like a general reality check this time. Dogs are good friends – good friends who can tell when we’re looking at the sandwich we told them not to eat. But beware of sentences beginning “The dog knows …,” because what a dog knows is very different from what you or I know. Remember that biography of Kim Kardashian.
For more about teaching and living with your dog, check out my book, The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at email@example.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thanks for reading!
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Dog with Toy image from Shutterstock