Your Dog May Know If You've Done Something On Purpose, Or Just Screwed Up

Your dog may be able to tell if you're doing something on purpose or just screwing up
Click to enlarge the image and toggle caption Josepha Erlacher Josepha Erlacher

Anyone who has ever stepped on a dog’s tail accidentally has likely wondered if dogs could tell the difference between making a mistake and doing it intentionally. A new study has shown that dogs can sense when their human partners are making mistakes.

"I must admit that I was shocked. Juliane Bruer (head of the dog studies laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany), who published the findings of her team online Wednesday in Scientific Reports.

However, not everyone agrees with the conclusions of her study. Clive Wynne (the founding director of Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory in Tempe), said that she was not convinced. "I think it is a fascinating question but it's very difficult to answer. So at this point, I believe the jury is still out as to whether dogs understand human intentions.

Bruer and her coworkers asked dog owners to bring their dogs into the lab to see if their pets could understand what people are thinking. 51 dogs were involved in the experiments. The canines were taught to eat treats from an experimenter through a gap in a partition.

Britta Schnemann, a Harvard University student who performed this work while at the University of Gttingen, says that "And then we disrupted this established pattern by suddenly avecholding the treats." The delicious treats were not passed through the partition this time, but stayed on the experimenter’s side of the glass. They were so close that the dogs could see them on the floor.

Sometimes, the treats were accidentally withheld. Sometimes the treats were left behind by the experimenter who tried to pass them through the glass partition but dropped them. The experimenter could also close the gap in the glass partition so that the dog could observe him trying to pass the treats through, but failing.

The dog flies around the glass partition in a hurry to retrieve the food that the human researcher accidentally dropped.

Sometimes, however, the experimenter would show the dog the treats through a glass partition, then withdrew them and place them on the floor near the dog's seat.

The dog was able to walk around the partition, eat the treats, and not get food any time. However, the speed at which they did it and the reasons for it depended on whether the person denied them the treats "accidentally" (or on purpose).

The experimenter did not give the treats to the dogs "accidentally", so the dogs rushed to grab the food. The dogs were more cautious when the experimenter withheld the treats. They waited longer to go around the partition and try to eat it.

Some dogs refused to eat food deliberately withheld from them. They sat down instead. Bruer believes that this was an unusual behavior. He thinks the dogs thought that they were being good and would then give food to them.

You'll notice that the researcher is simply showing the dog the treat and then placing it on the ground beside her right foot before turning his back to the dog. The dog watches for a while longer than the previous video clip, before going out to search for the treat.

Bruer points out that the whole situation was unusual for the dogs as their owners would most likely not have a habit of teasing them and refusing to feed them. She believes that the way the dogs responded might indicate that they can understand intent, at least in this simplified setting.

Similar results were obtained in experiments with chimpanzees. Chimps must remain on their side of the partition for safety reasons. When food is withheld from them, they will scream at the glass and leave the experiment in a hurry. Schnemann says that chimps will try to help you if food is taken away from them by accident. They will then try to grab the reward and stick their finger through the gap.

Humans seem to have a basic understanding of others' intentions from their early childhood. If a toddler sees an adult trying to put together two pieces of an object, but is unable to do it correctly, they will mimic the action and put the object together. Schnemann says that while they may understand that people sometimes fail, they still understand the intent of what they are trying to accomplish.

She adds that understanding the intentions of people in a more complex manner, such as how they are affected by their beliefs, desires and values, is a skill that develops in the pre-school years.

Bruer says it's impossible to ask the dogs their thoughts in such an experimental setting. She finds the results to be interesting. She says, "The take-home message for me was that they are extremely sensitive and might even discern whether we do something on purpose or not." "They are always watching us and are sensitive to subtle differences like we saw in the experiment. That's very interesting and amazing.

She has thought a lot about how dogs can understand when someone accidentally stomps their tail. She says, "I don’t know." "Maybe the situation's a little different." It involves pain instead of reward.

Wynne believes that even the results of this experiment with food can be difficult to understand. Wynne says that the experimenters' intentions through their actions were difficult to understand for anyone, not even a dog.

Click to enlarge the image and toggle the caption Josepha Erlacher Josepha Erlacher

Wynne says that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between actions that are different based on intent. Wynne says that if a waiter spills red wines on a customer, and apologizes for it, it can be hard for customers to determine if they were acting maliciously or if it was an accident.

Wynne claims that all the actions of the participants in the experiment were intentional. The experimenter was only trying to deliver the treat by pretending not to. He said, "If you did that to me," "I think it would be a good idea."

He stated that he doesn't know if a dog is in a hurry or slow to grab something. It doesn't match anything I can think. Those are my doubts.

He believes dogs are intelligent and can form close bonds with other species. He doubts dogs are concerned about the intentions of people.

He says that dog owners spend a lot time teaching their dogs which foods are for them and which ones for us.

He says that "we work really, really really hard at this," but at the end, it's still on the ground when it hits it."