Animal Emotions

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Stealth Dogs Steal Food in the Dark and Snatch it Quietly

Studies of our best friends show they're reasoning, crafty, and quiet thieves

Just about everyone who lives with a dog has a story or perhaps many tales about how their companion is an Einsteinian genius with an incredibly rich and deep emotional life who even knows right from wrong. And, what's very interesting, is that scientific research is supporting these stories coming from non-scientists who take the time to watch how their dog behaves in various situations, some of whom even perform citizen-scientist research projects.

Stealth dogs know what humans can see

Two recent studies published in the journal Animal Cognition concerned with visual perspective taking in dogs show just how stealthy dogs can be when stealing food. In the first project, aptly titled "Dogs steal in the dark" conducted by researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, dogs were found to steal significantly more food in the dark compared to when it was light. Before testing, a human had forbade the dogs from taking a piece of food so the dogs knew they were doing something they weren't supposed to do. The researchers also discovered that the dog’s behavior while stealing food depended on the type of illumination in the room. When the food was illuminated, but not the human, the dogs didn't try to steal the food. The results of this research suggest that dogs take into account the human’s visual access to the food, their visual perspective, while making their decision whether to steal it or not.

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When stealing food dogs prefer to be silent but not hidden

In the second study titled "Domestic dogs conceal auditory but not visual information from others" some of the same researchers and other colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology discovered that when given a choice of approaching forbidden food through a silent or a noisy tunnel, dogs preferred to silently approach the food but when they couldn't see a human present they didn't try to hide their approach. The researchers concluded that "dogs probably rely on what they themselves can perceive when they assess what the human can see and hear." In other words, the dogs figured that if they couldn't see the human, the human couldn't see them. 

Stay tuned for more on the fascinating behavior of our crafty companions. And, you might be able to do some of these sorts of non-invasive experiments with the dogs with whom you have contact and in addition to having fun and enriching their lives you can also enrich your own and learn more about their well developed cognitive/reasoning skills. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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