Dogs Know Your Secrets

Researchers demonstrate dogs' ability to understand human perspectives.
April 9, 2017, 7:00pm
Abby Logsdon

Dog people know this: Dogs figure stuff out. They figure us out. That's kind of their whole existence—we are their whole existence. Our behavior, our comings and goings, our habits. Dogs learn to communicate and they learn to manipulate. I like to say that my dog is a scientist of me. I'm his subject.

What, exactly, dogs know is the subject of much debate. We are easier for dogs to study than dogs are for us to study. My own anecdotal experience as a dog owner is a bit biased, obviously. Dogs are also easy to project onto, to imagine as furry four-legged people. But dogs are just dogs, and the essence of dogginess, what it is to be and feel as a dog, is elusive. Try as we might.

A team of researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has a new paper out in the journal Animal Cognition offering evidence that dogs are able to interpret human behavior for the purposes of uncovering hidden information. They can read us in a way that approaches "theory of mind," the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires—to oneself and to others. Having a theory of mind means understanding that others have their own motivations and understandings and that intuiting those motivations and understandings means being able to predict the behavior of those others.

The Vienna dogologists used what's known as the Guesser-Knower paradigm, one of several methods employed in studying theory of mind in animals. It starts with two humans in a room with an animal. The "guesser" leaves the room while the "knower" puts some food in one of several different containers. The animal sees that the knower is putting food in a container, but not which container. The guesser then comes back into the room and each human points at a different container. The animal then picks a container and gets to keep any food that's found inside.

What this has to do with theory of mind is maybe not obvious. Basically, the animal has to be able to look at the two humans and figure out what each of them knows. That is, the animal has to be able to understand that they have different understandings.

This is basically what was done with the doggos. "To get the food, the dogs have to understand who knows the hiding place (Knower) and who does not and can, therefore, only guess (Guesser)," offered lead researcher Ludwig Huber in a statement. "They must identify the informant they can rely on if they have to decide for one food container."

About 70 percent of the time the dogs were able to pick the container with food in it, indicating that they were able to evaluate the perspectives of the guesser and knower and make a correct selection based on that insight.

Similar work to this had already been done by researchers in New Zealand, but the Vienna group wanted to validate those earlier findings (which likewise suggested that dogs can intuit human perspectives) by adding a twist to the experiment. Here, a third person baited a container with two "informants" in the room with them (and the dog and owner). One informant looked slightly toward the person placing the bait, while the other information looked slightly away. Then, each pointed at a container. The dog was then left to discern which informant has the correct knowledge.

Dogs were about 70 percent successful in this new variation as well. "The ability to interpret our behaviour and anticipate our intentions, which has obviously developed through a combination of domestication and individual experience, seems to have supported the ability to adopt our perspective," Huber said. "It still remains unclear which cognitive mechanisms contribute to this ability. But it helps dogs to find their way in our world very well."

In other words, dogs are on to you.