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Dogs Can Adopt Our Point of View to Help Find Food

Always surprising us with new tricks, those dogs.

Starting around kindergarten, we begin to develop our own plans, thoughts, and points of view. Desires start to form, as do beliefs and such things as the ability to lie. The greater rubric of this development is called the Theory of Mind and it one of its major hallmarks is the ability for someone to adopt other beings’ point of view in order to understand them and the world better. Apes and birds of the corvid family (crows, ravens) are, so far, the only animals who have a handle on Theory of Mind. But a new study conducted at Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, however, has found that dogs, to varying degrees, have a handle on it, too. At least, they do when snacks are on the line.

To determine dogs’ grasp on the Theory of Mind, researchers used a standard Guesser-Knower paradigm to conduct the study. The experiment uses two people — the Guesser and the Knower — and one dog. The Knower hides food in one of several containers in a room, unbeknownst to both the Guesser and the dog. In addition, each container smells like food.

After the Knower hides the food, the two humans non-verbally inform the dog where the food is hidden. The Knower points to the baited container and the Guesser points randomly to an empty one. Principal investigator Ludwig Huber says that the dogs had to identify which person was the Knower and which the Guesser to find secret food. Approximately 70 percent of dogs in study picked the right box.

After this success, another test was issued. Now, a third person would hide the food. The two informants, instead of pointing, would simply look at the hidden box or look away, respectively. Even in this much more difficult circumstance, roughly 70 percent of the dogs correctly located the food.

Huber says that the dogs deciphered the informants’ knowledge of the boxes thanks to their gazes. The dogs adopted the positions of the humans — falling in line with Theory of Mind — and followed their gazes geometrically. Thus, the dogs discovered what the humans could see and, consequently, discovered which human they could or could not trust.

Although dog owners enjoy discussing the humanity of their animals, scientists have only ever vaguely speculated the degree to which dogs can understand human emotions and adapt their behavior accordingly. Huber attributes dogs’ Theory of Mind capabilities to intense domestication and individual experience. The researchers, unfortunately, were unable to identify which cognitive mechanism affects dogs’ social intelligence. Until they do, be careful hiding the dog food. And don’t, under any circumstances, ever look at it.