Dogs Understand Human Intention


Throughout the ages, dogs have been human’s closest companions. Research suggests one of the reasons might be that dogs understand human intention.

Recent research tested whether dogs were able to distinguish intentional human actions from unintentional ones, even when the outcomes were the same. In the experiment, dogs were fed rewards (i.e. treats) through a gap in a transparent partition. Every dog was subjected to three conditions: In the unwilling-condition, the experimenter suddenly and intentionally withdrew the treat. In the unable-clumsy condition, the experimenter started to deliver the treat but “accidentally” dropped it on the ground. In the unable-blocked condition, the experimenter started to deliver the treat but was unable to pass it through the gap because it was blocked.

The dogs reacted differently when the experimenter intentionally withheld food from them than when it was by accident. When the experimenters pretended to change their mind about giving food (the unwilling condition), the dogs sat and laid down more often – and didn’t wag their tails as much. In addition, the dogs took longer to approach the partition in search for the treat. These behaviors are all non-confrontational, suggesting the dogs understood the food was withheld intentionally and attempting to appease the experimenters so they would change their minds.

These results suggest dogs possess an aspect of cognition historically considered unique to humans: the capability to recognize the mental state of others. The so-called theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others, allowing us to interpret and even predict the behavior of others. This capability is one of the foundations for social interaction.

From that perspective, it may not be surprising dogs exhibit this behavior since dogs are social animals. However, other research has suggested apes and birds might also demonstrate aspects of the theory of mind. Dogs, apes, and birds all seem to recognize intentionality behind the actions of other animals and humans.

The research is reinforcement to what many dog lovers have always believed: dogs don’t just respond to its owner’s actions and commands. Dogs can sense feelings and dogs understand human intention.

Yes, your dog gets you.

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