German scientists find fresh evidence of canine intelligence

Dogs have always displayed a curious look and a quizzical grumble to give the impression that they are more knowledgeable than you might think. Researchers have now found new evidence that dogs can discern whether human actions were intentional or not.
The ability to attribute thoughts and recognize that they can lead to certain behaviours to others is often thought of as a unique human trait, but the study suggests that at least some elements could be shared by canines.

The authors note that our findings are important evidence that dogs might have some aspect of theory-in-action. They write that they found evidence of this ability in dogs, noting that horses, chimpanzees and African grey parrots also show this ability.

Research has shown that dogs are able to track the attention of humans to determine when they want to snatch food and respond to pointing gestures. Many dogs also get excited about certain cues, such as when a leash has been picked up. Experts disagree on whether dogs truly grasp the concept of human intent.

German scientists describe their efforts to unravel the issue in Scientific Reports. They asked a researcher to give treats to dogs through a screen gap.

The researcher tested the dog under three conditions. In one, the researcher tried to give a treat to the dog but dropped it on the screen. In another, the researcher attempted to offer a treat to the dog but the gap was closed. The researcher then offered the treat but abruptly withdrew it, and said, "Ha ha!"

This experiment aims to see if they don't get the food in any of the three scenarios. Dr Juliane Bruner, coauthor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History research, stated that the key difference between the two is whether the treat was intentionally withheld or not.

Based on video recordings of 51 dogs, the results show that dogs waited longer to walk around the screen in order to receive the treat directly in the event of sudden withdrawal of the morsel. They also tended to stop waving their tails and either sit or lie down.

According to the team, the dogs show a distinct behavior between different environments. They write that this shows that dogs can distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior.

They do note that further research is required to determine if dogs have learned to avoid food being withdrawn from their mouths or if they are responding to different exclamations by the researcher.

Dr Suilin Lavandelle, a University of Edinburgh lecturer in philosophy, stated that although dog-owners might find the results surprising, they are far from trivial.

It is crucial to distinguish between intentional and unintentional behavior within a species. Being able to apply this knowledge to other species, even one that has co-evolved with your species, gives you additional survival benefits.

Lavelle acknowledged that the authors were correct to be cautious about how this ability was acquired. She also noted that dogs less familiar with humans may not make the same distinction. However, she stated that demonstrating the ability in domesticated pets was a promising first step.

Lavelle stated, however, that theory of mind can be attributed to dogs if they have the ability to do so. Researchers are still debating whether this level of understanding is enough to warrant this label.