Dogs May Understand When Humans Make Mistakes

dog and friend

Dogs have been with us for a very long time. It isn’t clear how wild wolves became domesticated dogs. Still, it is telling that the evidence suggests that we domesticated them when most of our species were still hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. Currently, the oldest dog burial dates to about 14,200 years ago, which is interesting because the very practice suggests that our canine companions were, well, already our canine companions by that point in time. However, we have reason to believe that wild wolves became domesticated dogs even earlier, with 24,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago being the relevant time frame. Unfortunately, even though dogs have been with us since prehistorical times, there is still much that we don’t know about them. This is understandable for a number of reasons.

For example, the Scientific Revolution happened in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, there is still much that we don’t know even about ourselves. Never mind other species. Similarly, while we can communicate with dogs to some extent and vice versa, it isn’t exactly as informative as human-to-human communication. Thanks to that, there is a huge hurdle for our efforts to understand dogs that doesn’t exist for our efforts to understand ourselves. The effect of this hurdle isn’t absolute, but it is nonetheless clear. Regardless, the simple fact of the matter is that there is still much that we don’t know about dogs. Of course, that means plenty of opportunities for scientists to expand our understanding of our canine companions by running experiments, which is why there are a fair number of them engaged in exactly that. Sometimes, their findings are unsurprising but nonetheless informative. Other times, their findings are much more exciting. For instance, a recent experiment suggests that dogs might be capable of understanding when humans make mistakes, which if true, is a huge revelation.

Why Do Some Scientists Think that Dogs Might Understand When Humans Make Mistakes?

For those who are curious, researchers at the Max Planck Institute set up an experiment meant to gain insight into how much dogs comprehended human actions. The experiment started out with a researcher feeding a dog treats through a gap in a glass partition. However, once they had managed to establish the pattern, they would then deviate from that pattern by withholding the treats. Sometimes, the researcher would do so in an “intentional” manner by acting as though they were going to offer the treat before withdrawing it and then putting it down besides them. Other times, the researcher would do so in an “unintentional” manner by acting as though they were going to offer the treat before letting it fall from their hand as though an accident.

In both cases, most of the dogs would walk around the glass partition to get at the treat, which makes sense because there was no real physical barrier that prevented them from doing so. However, there was a notable difference in the way that the dogs reacted to the “intentional” and the “unintentional” withholding of food. They waited longer to get at the treat in the first scenario than in the second scenario. Furthermore, there were some dogs that didn’t try to eat the treat at all when the researcher’s action was “intentional” but instead remained on their side of the glass partition, which was particularly striking.

It isn’t clear why the dogs acted the way that they did in the experiment. The researchers at the Max Planck Institute interpreted their findings to suggest that dogs can understand when humans make mistakes at least in this simple scenario. However, they couldn’t exactly ask the dogs what they were thinking, meaning that there is plenty of room for interpretation. Certainly, there are other scientists who disagree with the ones who ran the experiment. As such, there will need to be further experiments set up specifically for the purpose of investigating the potential conclusions. Besides this, it should also be mentioned that even if the dogs were indeed reading the researcher’s intention, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to do the same under other circumstances. After all, the ability to do something under one set of circumstances doesn’t mean the ability to do the same thing under every possible set of circumstances, so that is another potential area of investigation as well.

Why Does This Matter?

In any case, these findings are interesting because of their implications for canine intelligence. Simply put, living beings can’t read intentions unless they are capable of understanding that someone or something else can have intentions. This is a core component of theory of mind, which is the ability to understand others by ascribing mental states to others. Generally speaking, theory of mind is one of the characteristics that we strongly associate with ourselves. This is because it plays a critical role in our interactions with one another. Indeed, young children are very bad in this regard, which is why they can often come off as being egocentric. However, as we continue to interact with others, we tend to develop theory of mind. Something that enables us to better understand one another, thus facilitating our social relationships as well as our social interactions.

Having said this, it is important to note that investigation into the matter has revealed that there are animals that possess theory of mind. For instance, similar experiments have been run involving chimpanzees, though those involved closed partitions because chimpanzees are much more potentially aggressive animals than dogs. When researchers “intentionally” withheld food in those experiments, the chimpanzees became very clearly upset, so much so that some of them would even pound on the glass in frustration. In contrast, when researchers “unintentionally” withheld food, the chimpanzees remained more cooperative, with the result that some of them would even try to help the researchers get the food to them. We already know that dogs are surprisingly good at reading us when compared to the overwhelming majority of the animal kingdom. However, if they really can read our intentions, they would be even better at this than what we had imagined.

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