Almost every dog owner is convinced his dog can read his mind. However, for years scientists thought that a dog's interactions with humans relied on cues the canine took from his surroundings. Researchers are taking a closer look. They are not studying ESP or mental telepathy but are examining a higher form of behavior which psychologists call Theory of Mind. Until recently, it was thought to be strictly a human trait.
Theory of mind implies self-awareness of one's own mental state and the ability to understand that another individual may possess information and agendas different from one's own. In other words, it is the recognition that another person may see the world differently and will base their behavior on what they perceive. Understanding what another individual perceives is known as perspective taking. Researchers have designed some cleaver experiments to test a dog for theory of mind and perspective taking.
A study published in Biology Letters tested whether dogs exhibited contagious yawning. You have surely been in a situation where one person yawns, then another, and then another. This is known as contagious yawning. The explanation seemed to be a mystery until somewhat recently investigators noted that contagious yawning does not occur in autistic children. The researchers concluded that "catching" a yawn is a sign of empathy or the ability to share another's emotions and feelings. Many autistic people lack empathy.
The responses of 29 dogs were recorded when they observed a person yawning or making controlled mouth movements. Twenty one of the dogs yawned when they saw a human yawning. None of the dogs yawned when they watched a human make controlled mouth movements. Only dogs and humans cross species lines to catch a yawn. The fact that dogs do possess the capacity for at least a rudimentary form of empathy for humans supports theory of mind in dogs.
A group from the University of Milan in Italy tested whether a dog could be swayed by a human when given the choice between a larger quantity of food and a smaller amount. Logic might have it that a dog would always choose the larger bowl of food. The team from Milan found that a dog chose the bowl that a human seemed to prefer no matter the size of the portion or the type of food that was in the bowl. It is not clear why this is the case, but it does indicate that dogs look to us for leadership. The fact that our opinion can influence a dog's choice of food quantity, indicates that they understand we have information that they do not. They apparently trust our judgement providing more evidence for theory of mind in dogs.
Most dog owners will tell you they have seen a jealous dog, but supporting empirical data was lacking. Two experiments that provide evidence of jealousy in dogs stand out.
Researcher from the University of California San Diego individually tested 36 dogs while their owner ignored them and interacted with a series of three different objects. When the owners talked sweetly to and petted a stuffed dog that could bark and wag its tail, their dogs were definitely jealous. They snapped at the fake dog and pushed to get between it and the owner vying for the owner's attention. Then investigators tested the dogs' reactions when a novel object like a jack-o-lantern or children's book that had pop-up pages and played tunes were treated affectionately by the owner. The dogs did not display behaviors indicating jealousy toward these objects.
Another study from the University of Vienna investigated whether dogs were sensitive to inequality of rewards when they gave a paw to shake with an experimenter. When alone with an experimenter a dog would shake with or without a reward. When another dog was present, the dog did not want to cooperate and shake if the other dog received a reward and they didn't or if the other dog got a better reward like sausage versus plain brown bread.
Results of these two studies indicate that dogs do display the emotion of jealousy which adds evidence to theory of mind in dogs.
A group led by Juliane Kaminski of the University of Cambridge evaluated a dog's ability to take the visual perspective of humans. A dog and a human faced each other across a table with an opaque barrier and a translucent barrier between them. A toy was placed behind each barrier on the dog's side of the table. The person told the dog to "Bring it here!" giving no clue that either toy was desired. Dogs always chose the toy behind the transparent barrier that the person could see. The toy behind the opaque barrier was ignored. The results suggest that the dogs were sensitive to the fact that the investigator could see only one toy even though the dog could see both. In other words, the dogs could understand the person's point of view.
When the human turned his back on the dog and toys or sat on the same side of the table as the dog, toy selection became completely random. That means a dog can understand that a human's point of view can be different than his. Furthermore, he can figure out what the human can see. More evidence that a dog has theory of mind.
A study in Current Biology shows that dogs communicate with humans by following their gaze. In other words, a dog understands when a human is directing his attention to an item. This is a feat that chimpanzees cannot do. Try it. Get your dog's attention and point at something. He will probably also look at it. You may not even need to point. Just turn your head toward and focus your attention on an object and your dog will too.
The results of these studies begin to explain why our dogs seem to have psychic abilities. They do focus on us and try to read our intentions and desires. They have empathy for us, trust our judgement, desire our affection, wish to be treated fairly, and pay attention to our interests. Dogs may not be able to read our minds, but they do have theory of mind that tells them much about our thoughts and desires.
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With a Ph.D. in Biological sciences from the University of Texas in Austin and a masters in Zoology from Southern Illinois University, Dr. Sue is devoted to the care and massaging of pets. Read her articles here.