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Do Dogs Understand Our Intentions?

Dogs respond differently to intentional and unintentional actions.

Key points

  • A recent study found that dogs respond differently depending on whether a person accidentally or intentionally withholds a reward.
  • It is not clear yet whether dogs really understand human intentions or whether they learned to pick up on behavioural cues from the human.
  • Understanding intentions is one component of the theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others.

Every dog owner has been there. You take the leash to go out with your dog and your dog is immediately ready to go. Or you accidentally step on their paw. Or you tease your dog by pretending to throw the ball but really hide it behind your back. In all three situations, you wonder whether your dog understands your intentions.

Judith Keller, used with permission
Setup of the study
Source: Judith Keller, used with permission

To answer this question, we recently conducted an experiment that examined how dogs reacted when food rewards were withheld either on purpose or by accident (Schünemann, Keller et al. 2021).

We tested dogs in three conditions. In each condition, the tested dog was separated from a human tester by a transparent barrier. The basic situation was that the experimenter fed the dog pieces of dog food through a gap in the barrier. In the “unwilling” condition, the experimenter suddenly withdrew the reward through the gap in the barrier and placed it in front of herself. In the “unable-clumsy” condition, the experimenter brought the reward to the gap in the barrier and “tried” to pass it through the gap but then “accidentally” dropped it. In the “unable-blocked” condition, the experimenter again tried to give the dog a reward but was unable to because the gap in the barrier was blocked. In all conditions, the reward remained on the tester’s side of the barrier.

Dogs Respond Differently Depending on Intention

We found that dogs respond differently depending on whether the actions of the experimenter were intentional or unintentional. The primary behaviour we measured was the time dogs waited before approaching the reward they were denied. We assumed that if dogs were able to identify human intentions, they would wait longer before approaching the reward in the unwilling condition, where they were not supposed to have the reward, than in the two unable conditions in which the reward was, in fact, meant for them. Not only did the dogs wait longer in the unwilling condition than in the unable conditions, but they were also more likely to sit or lie down – actions often interpreted as appeasing behaviours – and stop wagging their tails.

So do dogs understand human intentions? This ability is one component of the theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, long regarded as uniquely human. Well, the dogs in our study clearly could distinguish between the conditions as they behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional. Whether they really understand if the experimenter wanted to feed them or not, we do not know. Dogs observe us all the time, so maybe they picked up behavioural cues from the experimenter. Some dogs might have learned certain cues that indicate whether they are allowed to eat the food or not. However, it is not very likely that they have experience with a situation as in our study, in which the owner sits in front of them and teases them with food pieces.

Intentions Are Difficult to Determine

Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, finds our results difficult to interpret. When asked to comment on our study for a recent article in NPR, he said that intention "is an immensely subtle and confusing thing for anybody to grasp, never mind a dog."

And he’s right. Intentions are very difficult to determine and we wouldn’t expect this skill to appear everywhere. But the unable-versus-unwilling paradigm we used in our study has been used with chimpanzees (Call et al. 2004), African grey parrots (Peron et al. 2010), monkeys (Phillips et al. 2009, Canteloup & Meunier 2017), horses (Trösch et al. 2020) and 9-month-old human infants (Marsh et al. 2010). If we’re willing to accept that this paradigm shows the ability to recognize intent in chimpanzees and babies, why shouldn’t we accept it for dogs, who show a very similar pattern in the same paradigm?

There’s always a need for further study, but our experiment shows that dogs act differently when we do something “on purpose” and when we do something “by accident.” So, maybe your dog does know you didn’t mean to step on their foot, but it wouldn’t hurt to apologize anyways.

References

Call, J., Hare, B., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2004). 'Unwilling' Versus 'Unable': Chimpanzees' Understanding of Human Intentional Action. Dev Sci, 7(4), 488-498.

Canteloup, C., & Meunier, H. (2017). 'Unwilling' versus 'unable': Tonkean macaques' understanding of human goal-directed actions. PeerJ, 5, e3227. doi:10.7717/peerj.3227

Marsh, H. L., Stavropoulos, J., Nienhuis, T., & Legerstee, M. (2010). Six- and 9-Month-Old Infants Discriminate Between Goals Despite Similar Action Patterns. Infancy, 15(1), 94-106. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7078.2009.00002.x

Péron, F., Rat-Fischer, L., Nagle, L., & Bovet, D. (2010). 'Unwilling' versus 'unable' Do grey parrots understand human intentional actions? Interaction Studies, 11, 428-441. doi:10.1075/is.11.3.06per

Phillips, W., Barnes, J. L., Mahajan, N., Yamaguchi, M., & Santos, L. R. (2009). ‘Unwilling’ versus ‘unable’: capuchin monkeys’ (Cebus apella) understanding of human intentional action. Dev Sci, 12(6), 938-945. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00840.x

Schünemann, B., Keller, J., Rakoczy, H., Behne, T., & Bräuer, J. (2021). Dogs distinguish human intentional and unintentional action. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 14967. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-94374-3

Trösch, M., Bertin, E., Calandreau, L., Nowak, R., & Lansade, L. (2020). Unwilling or willing but unable: can horses interpret human actions as goal directed? Animal Cognition, 23(5), 1035-1040. doi:10.1007/s10071-020-01396-x

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