There's no doubt that your dog sees you. These wonderful animals are always watching over us and are always there for us.
Yet, despite their love (and food-obsessed!) gaze, how keenly can these children identify what we do? Are they able to discern the purpose and meaning behind our actions?
New research suggests that they may be able to, at least in part, because dogs can correctly discriminate between intentional and unintentional actions on the part humans.
Britta Schnemann, a developmental psychologist from Germany's University of Gttingen, says that the dogs behaved differently depending upon whether or not the human experimenter was intentional.
"This suggests that dogs may indeed be able to identify humans' intention-in-action."
The partition experiment. (Josepha Erlacher)
Researchers tested the ability of dogs to distinguish between human intent and non-intention in experiments with over 50 dogs.
The 'Unwilling to Lie' system is used. A researcher would be seated on one side of a transparent section while a subject dog would be on the other.
The researcher was able to feed the dog food rewards several times by leaving a small gap at the top of the partition.
The real test started after this: Dogs were shown food rewards, but they were not given in any of the three ways.
The unwilling-condition is when the experimenter abruptly withdrew the reward for the dog with an intention movement," researchers explained in their study. The unwilling-condition signifies that the experimenter deliberately withheld the treat from animal.
Two other methods, however, were a result of instances in which the researcher intended to feed the dog, but was unable to do so.
Researchers write that the experimenter tried to administer the reward in the condition of the unclumsy, but the reward "accidentally" fell out of her hands before she could pass it through a gap.
"She tried to give the reward in the same condition but it was blocked by her unable-block condition.
The poor dog did not get the food reward in all cases. However, it was interesting to see how the dog would react to the situation. Could the dog distinguish between the intent to feed the dog and the lack thereof?
Juliane Bruer, senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, says that dogs may be able to attribute intention-in-action (humans) to dogs. She believes they would have different reactions to the unwilling and unable conditions.
"As it turns, this is exactly the thing we observed."
Dogs had to be familiarized with the laboratory setting before they were allowed to begin the experiment. They were also shown how they could walk around the transparent pane in order for the experimenter.
Researchers realized that dogs may eventually realize that it is easier to get the treat if they simply walk around the partitions to reach the food source.
The team however predicted that dogs who were 'intentionally denied' treats would be more likely to try it, as they may not be as likely to get the reward.
Dogs who have had a bad luck with their feeding attempts might be more inclined to approach the researcher.
The researchers' predictions regarding waiting times proved correct, suggesting that the dogs were capable of discerning intent from inaction.
This view was supported by other dog behaviors, including the tendency for dogs to lie down or sit on the ground when they think the food is being withheld.
Researchers write that they could have used sitting or lying down to calm the experimenter.
"The dogs also thought that withholding the reward might have an activating effect, and that some form or learned action might persuade the unwilling experimenter of supplying the reward."
These findings are published in Scientific Reports.