I read a social media post a while ago that absolutely broke my heart — dogs don’t understand accidents, so when you step on their tail, they think you stood up just to harm them. While I spiraled into an existential crisis for an hour or so that consisted of hugging my dog until he was considering stepping on his own tail to get rid of me, I wondered if what I had just read was accurate. After all, if it’s on the internet, it must be true, right?
I started to wonder if dogs had any concept of mistakes. It might be another case of anthropomorphism, but I’ve definitely seen my dog instantly regret certain choices, such as running upstairs only to see the big, bad vacuum cleaner at the top.
My internal musings were answered by five scientists from Germany’s University of Göttingen in a recent study published in Scientific Reports. Their question was slightly different from mine, but the premise was the same: “Do dogs show appropriate responses to human intentional actions because they are simply responding to an action’s environmental outcome or because they actually recognize the human’s intention?”
To conduct the research, the researchers gathered a group of 51 dogs (27 female, 24 male). From there, they created two conditions:
- One Unwilling, where the experimenter intentionally withheld the reward
- Two Unable, where the experimenter intentionally withheld the reward because she was clumsy or physically prevented from giving it to the dog
A partition was set up between a dog and experimenter, and the experimenter would start feeding the dog to establish the pattern. From there, the experimenter would start withholding the rewards in unwilling and unable fashions. Throughout the process, the researchers found the dogs waited longer to approach the food that was withheld intentionally, which indicates some understanding of human behavior.