Dogs can tell when you want to give them – even if you don’t

Dogs can tell when you want to give them – even if you don’t

Pet dogs respond more patiently when people clumsily drop a treat out of reach than when it is deliberately pulled away, suggesting that dogs can understand human intentions.


25 January 2023

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Pet dogs know when you intend to give them a treat, even if you drop it where they can’t find it

Shutterstock / eva_blanco

Dogs can understand when people mean well, even if they don’t get what they want from us. Prior to this work, the ability to distinguish between someone willing or unable to perform a task had only been found in non-human primates.

The close social bond between humans and rabbits is well established, but researchers have a limited understanding of whether and how dogs understand human intent. To see if pet dogs can distinguish between intentional and accidental actions of strangers, Christoph Völter at the Veterinary University of Vienna in Austria and his colleagues ran tests with humans offering dogs food and the animals’ body movements were tracked using out of eight cameras.

Each dog and person was separated by a transparent plastic panel with holes through which a slice of sausage could be put. In 96 trials on 48 pet dogs, human participants either provoked the dog by holding up food and pulling it back, or pretended to clumsily drop the piece of sausage on their side of the panel before the dog could eat it .

In each trial, the dogs had to wait 30 seconds before they finally got their reward, and the team tracked their reaction. A machine learning algorithm trained to detect and follow specific points on the dogs’ bodies allows the researchers to analyze the dogs’ body language.

They found that when people pretended to release a treat compared to when they deliberately withdrew it, the dogs responded more patiently: they made more eye contact with the experiment, they threw their tails more, and stayed closer to the transparent barrier, giving the impression that they were. still expecting a feast. The dogs that were amputating sat, laid down, and supported the barrier more often. The results were similar across different dog breeds, ages and genders.

In the clumsy test, the dogs also wagged their tail more on their right side, a behavior known to be associated with dogs that are happy and relaxed. “They have more positive feelings towards the clumsy experimenter, which may indicate that they do indeed understand that the experimenter is happy, but too clumsy, to give them food,” says Völter.

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