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Can Your Dog Read Your Mind?

Dogs observe human behavior in order to understand our thoughts

I was intrigued by a recent article which appeared in the scientific journal Learning and Behavior, because of its title. The article reported research coming out of the University of Florida, based on a study by a team of researchers headed by Monique Udell. The article was entitled Can your dog read your mind? Understanding the causes of canine perspective taking.

dog dogs pet pets mind read communication social cues

I don't want you to misunderstand what this article is about. It is not about ESP or mentalism. Stodgy scientific journals don't usually publish much about those topics. But it is about something which is really fascinating. It has to do with a higher form of behavior which psychologists refer to "Theory of Mind". There is a heated debate among behavioral researchers as to whether dogs have a theory of mind. In this case it does not refer to whether canines have some notion or hypothesis about how the brain works. Rather theory of mind deals with the idea that an individual understands that another individual has thoughts and insights that may be different from the observer's, and that their and interpretation of the world depends upon what is coming in through their individual senses. It is a recognition that another individual can see the world differently from the way that we do, and is also a recognition that an individual will base their behavior on what they perceive. Understanding what that individual perceives is referred to as perspective taking -- in essence it is an attempt to read someone's mind and figure out what they are thinking at the moment.

The reason that this topic is both important and controversial is that having a theory of mind is evidence for consciousness at the level of having an idea about "self" and "other". This is a hot topic among psychologists and philosophers, some of whom believe that dogs have consciousness which is very similar to that of humans, while others believe that dogs act and react in response to stimulation in the environment but do so without conscious thought.

In this particular case the researchers concentrated on suggestions from other laboratories and from dog owners in general which indicate that dogs act differently when they believe that they are being watched or looked at. The simplest case of this is that dogs only seem to beg for food from individuals who are paying attention to them. For example some research has indicated that given a choice a dog will beg for food from a person who is looking at them as opposed to another individual who was wearing a blindfold. This seems to suggest a theory of mind, and some researchers have suggested that dogs have been specifically bred so that they pay attention to human social cues. In effect, this behavioral ability is believed to be an important byproduct of domestication. If that is the case, then this behavior would be encoded in a dog's genes. Other researchers maintain that such behaviors are not some special evidence of consciousness, but simply rote learning based upon the fact that the dog has only been rewarded in the past by individuals who have been looking at them.

The University of Florida researchers tried to test this, reasoning that if genetics was involved then wolves would not have such a theory of mind. Also, if experience were involved, then pet dogs would be more attuned to familiar conditions which indicate that an individual is looking at them or not.

The basic setup of their study involved two people who had given treats to the dogs before, and now one of them could clearly see the dog while the other could not. The question is which person that the dog approaches. You can see an example of this in the photos below, which shows the condition where one person has their back to the dog and the other does not, and the dog clearly begs for food from the human that is looking at them.

dog dogs pet pets mind read communication social cues theory of mind Udell

The results show that dogs reliably approach the person who can see them rather than one who has his back turned, but so do tamed wolves that have been hand reared from puppyhood (and thus should have learned something about interacting with people). When the researchers used a more subtle cue, namely an individual who could not see them because they were holding a book in front of their faces if they were reading, or if one of them had a bucket over their head, the pet dogs responded accurately by begging for the food from a person who could see them while the wolves failed to be that selective. This seems to be evidence for genetic encoding of the ability to respond to human social cues in dogs, with a little bit of a suggestion that wolves reared with humans can pick up some of this behavior but only in extremely obvious situations. However the researchers point out that stray dogs turned into a shelter do not reliably beg from the person who can see them. Certainly they ought to have the same genes as pet dogs. Yet this is not a clear result, since stray dogs may well have learned that a person who can see them is more likely to act hostility toward them, and that people in general are not going to offer them food even if they can see them.

A better test of whether paying attention to what people are looking at is encoded in the genes or based upon experience comes from the second experiment that the University of Florida group conducted. Again with pet dogs and wolves, they tested them with an individual who could see them and one who had a bucket over their head as before, only now the person wearing the bucket who could not see them rewarded them for begging by giving them food, while the one who could see them did not reward them. The idea was that if the interpretation of the social cues was learned, then it could be rapidly unlearned and the begging behavior moved to the individual who could not see the dog. This did not happen, and the dogs persisted in believing that the only one who would respond to their entreaties was the person who could see them, despite the change in the pattern of reward.

Over all these results suggest that dogs do have a strongly entrenched, perhaps genetic, predisposition to try to "read the mind" of humans, at least at the level of understanding that humans must pay attention to them if they are going to be able to get them to respond. Wolves can learn this, at least at a low level for the most obvious of cues (when an individual has their back turned) but not for the more subtle cues, such as the familiar situation where a human is looking at a book and thus not attending to what is going on in front of them.

So, can dogs read your mind? Well they certainly seem to have a theory of mind and they are trying to figure out what you are thinking so that they can communicate with you and get a bit more of what they want out of life.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

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