View Full Version : News: What is your dog thinking?

4th June 2007, 10:10 PM
My dog breeder aunt sent me this, from MSNBC:


What is your dog thinking?
Research provides more evidence of surprisingly complex abilities

By Rob Stein
The Washington Post
Updated: 11:24 p.m. ET June 3, 2007

Dog owners have long maintained that their pooches have a lot more going on between their furry ears than scientists acknowledge. Now, new research is adding to the growing evidence that man's best friend thinks a lot more than many humans have believed.

The provocative new experiment indicated that dogs can do something that previously only humans, including infants, have been shown capable of doing: decide how to imitate a behavior based on the specific circumstances in which the action takes place.

"The fact that the dogs imitate selectively, depending on the situation -- that has not been shown before," said Friederike Range of the University of Vienna, who led the study. "That's something completely new."

The findings come amid a flurry of research that is revealing surprisingly complex abilities among dogs, chimps, birds and many other animals long dismissed as having little intellectual or emotional life.

"Every day, we're discovering surprises about animals and finding out animals are far more intelligent and far more emotional than we previously thought," said Marc Bekoff, an animal behaviorist who recently retired from the University of Colorado. "We're really breaking down the lines between the species."

The study was inspired by research with human infants. Fourteen-month-olds will imitate an adult turning on a light with her forehead only if they see her doing it with her hands free. If the adult is clutching a blanket, infants will use their hands, presumably because they can reason that the adult resorted to using her forehead because she had no choice.

To determine whether an animal could respond similarly, Range and her colleagues trained Guinness, a female border collie, to push a wooden rod with her paw to get a treat. A dog generally does not use its paws to do tasks, preferring to use its mouth whenever possible. So the key question was whether dogs that watched Guinness would decide how to get the treat depending on the circumstances.

After making sure the owners could not influence their pets' behavior, researchers tested three groups of dogs. The first 14, representing a variety of breeds, did not watch Guinness. When taught how to use the rod, about 85 percent pushed it with their mouth, confirming that is how dogs naturally like to do things.

The second group of 21 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly push the rod with her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. In that group, most of the dogs -- about 80 percent -- used their mouth, imitating the action but not the exact method Guinness had used. That suggested the dogs -- like the children -- decided Guinness was only using her paw because she had no choice.

‘More sophisticated’
The third group of 19 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly use a paw on the rod with her mouth free. Most of those dogs -- 83 percent -- imitated her behavior exactly, using their paws and not their mouth. That suggested they concluded there must be some good reason to act against their instincts and do it like Guinness.

"The behavior was very similar to the children who were tested in the original experiment," said Zsofia Viranyi of Eotvos University in Budapest, who helped conduct the experiment, published in the May 15 issue of the journal Current Biology. "Whether they imitate or not depends on the context. It's not automatic, insightless copying. It's more sophisticated. There's a kind of inferential process going on. "

Viranyi and her colleagues said more research is needed to confirm the results and to explore what the findings say about the canine brain.

"Do they use the same cognitive process as the infant? Or is it something different?" Range said. "We have no way of knowing that right now."

The findings stunned many researchers.

"What's surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans," said Brian Hare, who studies dogs at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought."

Making inferences
The experiment suggests that dogs can put themselves inside the head of another dog -- and perhaps people -- to make relatively complex decisions.

"This suggests they can actually think about your intention -- they can look for explanations of your behavior and make inferences about what you are thinking," Hare said.

Others go even further, suggesting the findings indicate that dogs have a sense of awareness.

"It really shows a higher level of consciousness," said Stanley Coren at the University of British Columbia, who studies how dogs think. "This takes a real degree of consciousness."

Others were more skeptical, saying it's too far a leap to conclude from the study that dogs possess conscious awareness.

"It's so easy for the human mind to look at a dog doing something like this and force our human way of thinking about it on the dog," said Daniel J. Povinelli, a cognitive scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "This ability might happen automatically without any conscious reflection on the dog's part."

The findings could simply be yet another example of the well-documented ability of dogs to interpret subtle physical cues that stem from their long, close relationship with humans, several researchers said.

"Dogs are really keen observers of the world around them," said Bruce Blumberg, who teaches classes on dog behavior at Harvard University. "They use simple but reliable rules that capture just enough of a problem to be able to just do better than guessing. This may just be another example of that."

Regardless of the interpretation, the research reflects a renewed interest in dogs.

"There's been an extraordinary explosion in research on dogs," said Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "What we're seeing really for the first time is incredibly serious and important work on dog behavior and dog genetics. The really important work will be when the canine cognitive work meets the canine genome work. It's going to give us information about where these capabilities come from."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19018411/

Barbara Nixon
4th June 2007, 10:29 PM
The baby could be considering only the actual switch pushed and the dogs the actual rod pushed, without the part of the body used to operate these items even coming into the equation.

5th June 2007, 01:33 AM
Great article, Karlin.
Anecdotally, we all knew it was true!!! ;)

5th June 2007, 01:43 AM
Very enjoyable read. We humans so underestimate the intelligence of other animals. It is the old "man is the measure of all things" that clouds our vision.

Oh, & at puppy school when we have a new task to do, I always make sure Beau & I go last. ;)

Cathy T
5th June 2007, 02:53 AM
I know what Jake is thinking....is it dinnertime yet? :rolleyes:

5th June 2007, 05:49 AM
That was really interesting, thanks for posting!

Scouty girl
5th June 2007, 02:21 PM
I'm with Kathy, Breeze and Scout think everytime I say sometime it has to do with food. Example: Come over here right now translates into You both are having steak for dinner.

All kidding aside, great article Karlin, thanks for sharing it with us.

6th June 2007, 07:23 AM
I get a kick out of reading 'dog' books that go on about what they do and don't know... and emotions that they do and don't feel... and how they have no concept of time other then 'now'... and they don't remember pooping on the floor two minutes ago... and then I look at our group and want to write a book myself. As in another thread, I say, "Pooh!".

The dogs have a helluva lot more going on that what research gives them credit for.


6th June 2007, 09:06 AM
I get a kick out of reading 'dog' books that go on about what they do and don't know... and emotions that they do and don't feel... and how they have no concept of time other then 'now'... and they don't remember pooping on the floor two minutes ago... and then I look at our group and want to write a book myself. As in another thread, I say, "Pooh!".

The dogs have a helluva lot more going on that what research gives them credit for.


I have to say I dont agree with that " if you don't catch them in the act they don't remember"
If my papillon messes on the floor I know about it because she looks so guilty. its not my body language because I havent found it yet !

My dad doesn't believe dogs think, they are just machines . Apart from Amy my charlie girl who was a little fluffy person NOT a dog . He sobbed when she died.
She used to bark at him for a biscuit then sit & wait for him to bring it to her . she wouldnt follow him to the kitchen

Barbara Nixon
6th June 2007, 10:57 AM
When we had the two springers, we could always tell whether they had been good while we were out. If they'd done wrong, they would not be waiting by the front door, but would emerge from the livingroom in a semi cringe, with slow waggy tails and apologetic grins. Naughty included 'eating' an ornament and part of a door frame or raiding the pantry.

6th June 2007, 03:19 PM
I can totally give evidence to this behavioral learning and how dogs learn situational behaviors. My example:

Cedar and Willow are both house trained; they always go outside, and they both give signs for when they want out (Cedar barks; Willow scratches at the glass door).

Recently, we installed a doggie door (WEEEEEEEEEE!!). The doggie door was installed in a different back door than the one they were used to going through to get to the backyard. Cedar, who loves to spend time outside and is not afraid of anything in the world, figured out the doggie door in a few days. Now, she'll see something outside that she wants chase, she'll run out of the room, down the hall and out her doggie door. It's terrific.

Willow, however, is afraid of the doggie door. She hid the first day or so after it was installed--it was weird and scary, so she hid. (Remember, she's a mill rescue.) After a few days, she realized it wasn't going to eat her, and she can watch Cedar come and go, come and go through the doggie door. But she won't go out the door herself.

If Willow wants to go outside (generally only for bathroom breaks; she's an indoor dog through and through!), she still goes and scratches at her glass door. If both dogs want to go out at the same time, Cedar goes through the doggie door, Willow waits for someone to open the glass door. She knows to go out, but she will not model Cedar and go through the door! She'll literally watch Cedar go through the door, then turn around run down the hall, into the sunroom and scratch at the glass door. :rolleyes:

It's been several weeks now since the door's installation, and with training Willow is now able to come inside through the doggie door as long as someone holds the plastic flaps up for her. It was a major breakthrough when she came through the door the first time; we partied like it was 1999!! She won't go outside (even with someone holding the flaps--coming in is so much more important to her!), so we are still a long way from her independent use of the door. Cedar tries her best to show her sister how easy and simple it really is--she goes in and out and in and out each time we are working with Willow. I dont think Willow's impressed. ;)

Sarah J
7th June 2007, 03:35 AM
Bout time animals got some acknowledgement for their intellectual capacities!:D

What a great article.