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Scientists Confirm Your Dog Actually Understands What You're Thinking

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Scientists Confirm Your Dog Actually Understands What You're Thinking

Dogs can understand human intentions, according to new research.

The findings, from Gottingen University, suggest that pooches can tell the difference between deliberate actions and mistakes.

Scientists add that there is growing evidence man's best friend know just how we are feeling.

The study's first author Dr Britta Schunemann said: "The dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional."

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Dogs have bonded with people over thousands of years. Obeying every "sit," "lay down" and "roll over" command is just one such skill.

But until these results, whether they understand intentions - or merely respond to outcomes - has remained unclear.

The experiment was carried out by German experts (Credit: SWNS)
The experiment was carried out by German experts (Credit: SWNS)

For a long time, scientists have believed that the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others - also known as Theory of Mind - is uniquely human.

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But the new findings allege that dogs too can tell the difference between something done on purpose and something done by accident.

To prove this, Dr Schunemann and colleagues tested how they reacted when food rewards were withheld.

The researchers found the animals behaved differently depending on whether the actions of the experimenter were intentional or unintentional.

To reach their conclusions, the German team conducted an experiment using the 'unable vs. unwilling' paradigm.

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It works by examining whether test subjects react differently towards a human experimenter.

They either intentionally (the unwilling condition) or unintentionally (the unable condition) withhold treats.

The experiment was conducted with 51 dogs, each of which was tested under three conditions.

Each animal was separated from the human tester by a transparent barrier. It was fed pieces of dog food through a gap.

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In the 'unwilling' condition, the experimenter suddenly withdrew the reward through the gap in the barrier and placed it in front of herself.

In the 'unable-clumsy' condition, the experimenter brought the reward to the gap and 'tried' to pass it through - but then 'accidentally' dropped it.

Dogs understood human intentions (Credit: SWNS)
Dogs understood human intentions (Credit: SWNS)

In the "unable-blocked" condition, the experimenter again tried to give the dog a reward.

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But she was unable to because the gap was blocked. In all conditions, the reward remained on the tester's side of the barrier.

Co author Dr Juliane Brauer, of Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: "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."

The primary behaviour measured by the researchers was the time dogs waited before approaching the reward they were denied.

If dogs are able to identify human intentions, they would wait longer before approaching the reward in the unwilling condition, where they were not supposed to have the reward, than in the two unable conditions in which the reward was, in fact, meant for them.

Not only did the dogs wait longer in the unwilling condition than in the unable conditions, they were also more likely to sit or lie down – actions often interpreted as appeasing behaviours – and stop wagging their tails.

Co-author Dr Hannes Rakoczy, also from Gottingen, said: "This suggests dogs may indeed be able to identify humans' intention-in-action."

The dogs were tested using treats (Credit: Shutterstock)
The dogs were tested using treats (Credit: Shutterstock)

The findings in Scientific Reports suggest dogs "may have at least one aspect of Theory of Mind - the capacity to recognise intention-in-action," said the researchers.

Previous studies have found dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry faces.

They also process language in a very similar way to humans - picking out emotional tone, intonation and volume changes that influence meaning.

Experts think dogs have gradually evolved over 30,000 years to understand humans

Selective breeding has meant those which could communicate better with their owners were preferred - encouraging the trait to become more pronounced over time.

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock

Topics: Animals, Dog

Joanna Freedman
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