Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Animal Behavior

Dogs know what others know: Some new and exciting findings about our best friends

Dogs show evidence of having a theory of mind

Domestic dogs are being studied more and more because we can learn so much not only about our best friends but also how they compare to their wild relatives - wolves and coyotes, for example - and other animals such as nonhuman primates.

Recently we've learned that when young dogs are exposed to videos during early life this experience can help them to overcome fear and to enhance coping strategies. How this information can be used to help individuals who, for a variety of reasons, have had restricted upbringings awaits further study and application.

We've also learned that dogs know what others can and cannot hear. We already know that rhesus monkeys and other nonhuman primates also have this ability. Here is an abbreviated abstract from the study done on dogs.

"Recent research suggests some nonhuman primates (e.g., chimpanzees, rhesus macaques) consider what others hear when acting in competitive situations. We explored whether dogs living in private homes or sourced from an animal shelter would show this same predilection. Following an inhibition task where dogs (Canis familiaris) were commanded not to take a treat left on a plate by a human, we presented subjects with the opportunity to take food from one of two containers. These containers were located within the proximity of a human gatekeeper who was either looking straight ahead or not looking at the time of choice. One container was silent when food was inserted or removed while the other was noisy. ... dogs preferentially attempted to retrieve food silently only when silence was germane to obtaining food unobserved by the human gatekeeper."

Thus, dogs selectively steal food quietly if humans are listening to what they do. It also turned out that shelter dogs didn't differ from companion dogs who lived at home with humans. Previous work had demonstrated differences between shelter and house dogs in various cognitive abilities. The researchers wrote: "... shelter dogs, like pet dogs, preferentially tried to retrieve food silently only if silence was relevant to obtaining food unobserved by a human gatekeeper. This result conflicts with other recent data suggesting that shelter dogs perform more poorly than pet dogs in tasks involving human social cues."

These data suggest that dogs have a theory of mind and like other animals, especially great apes, can attribute beliefs and knowledge to others. As we learn more about domestic dogs we come to realize they are very intelligent and that domestication - our interfering in their lives by selectively breeding for a variety of traits - hasn't made them "dumbed-down wolves."

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today