Study Looks at Dogs’ “Mind-Reading” Abilities

A new study, with the less-than-scientific title "Can your dog read your mind?" seems to confirms what most dog lovers have known all along: There's...


A new study, with the less-than-scientific title “Can your dog read your mind?” seems to confirms what most dog lovers have known all along: There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the way dogs interact with humans.

The study, by Monique Udell and her team at the University of Florida, sheds light on the way dogs react to levels of responsiveness by humans. According to her research, published in the online journal Learning & Behavior, previous experience and specific cues are important components in a dog’s bag of tricks when it comes to interacting with us.

Here’s a synopsis of the research paper, from the Learning & Behavior website:

Udell and team carried out two experiments comparing the performance of pet domestic dogs, shelter dogs and wolves given the opportunity to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. They wanted to know whether the rearing and living environment of the animal (shelter or human home), or the species itself (dog or wolf), had the greater impact on the animal’s performance.

They showed, for the first time that wolves, like domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. This demonstrates that both species – domesticated and non-domesticated – have the capacity to behave in accordance with a human’s attentional state. In addition, both wolves and pet dogs were able to rapidly improve their performance with practice.

The authors also found that dogs were not sensitive to all visual cues of a human’s attention in the same way. In particular, dogs from a home environment rather than a shelter were more sensitive to stimuli predicting attentive humans. Those dogs with less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging task.

So in other words, the more socialized with humans, the better the dog is at picking up on our cues. OK makes perfect sense, and seems pretty obvious, really, but I’m always happy to see scientific attention given to the way dogs and people interact. I’m not sure the tabloid-like headline about dogs reading minds was terribly accurate, but it is helping the study get some good media attention. Witness headlines like Dogs CAN Read Our Minds, Dogs Instinctively Know Who Is Friendlier, and Dogs Likely Born With ‘Canine Telepathy‘.

Anything that points to the strength of the dog-human bond is OK by me, but it would be fascinating for Udell or other dog behavior researchers to drill down deeper in the future. Anyone who’s ever had a dog knows that dogs seem to have the innate ability to do things like understand how we’re feeling, or know if someone has good intentions or bad. I’ve been speaking lately with a soldier whose working dog instinctively knew which soldiers in their Iraq-deployed unit were having a bad day, and would give them extra attention. How would could he tell, with some of these stoic troops? “He just did,” his handler told me. (In my research for my upcoming book, Soldier Dogs, I’m finding all kinds of anecdotes that point to the uncanny instincts of dogs. I can’t wait to share them with you.)

In the end it may all boil down to scents and other nuances that are imperceptible to us. I’d like to believe there’s something more, that dogs just “know” because they love us and want what’s best for us. What are your thoughts on this, Dogsters? Does your dog have these “mind-reading” abilities?

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