Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wildlife Wednesday: Can Dogs Read Minds?

Hello all, and thanks for tuning in to my newest installment of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, which I am officially renaming "WILDLIFE WEDNESDAY!" In celebration of the New Year, I am also making this series a weekly occurrence, so make sure to check back next week for a new post.

I plan to balance all this craziness by providing bi-weekly "Ask a Zookeeper" questions on the 1st and 3rd weeks of the month, and by posting nature-related articles on the 2nd and 4th weeks of the month.

Next week, I will be answering Sumaya Hassan's question about how to obtain a career in zookeeping, but this week, I will post my first nature-related article: a great one from DiscoveryNews titled, "Can Dogs Read Minds? Not Exactly."

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
By Jennifer Viegas
Thu Jan 5, 2012 12:00 PM ET

Dogs often seem to be psychic, anticipating what we're going to say or do, and now research reveals one secret behind this canine ESP: Dogs intensely track our eye movements, which can be tied to intent.

Human babies also possess the ability, described in the latest Current Biology. The discovery might help to explain why so many people treat their furry pals like their kids.

"Dogs are receptive to human communication in a manner that was previously attributed only to six-month-old human infants," co-author Jozsef Topal told Discovery News.

"They read our intention to communicate in a preverbal, infant-like manner," added Topal, who works in the Institute for Psychological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

For the study, Topal and his colleagues presented dogs with video recordings of a person turning toward one of two identical plastic pots while an eye tracker captured information about the dogs' reactions.

In one test, the person looked directly at the dog, addressing it in a high-pitched voice with "Hi dog!"

In the second test, the person gave only a low-pitched "Hi dog" while avoiding eye contact.

The study determined that dogs were more likely to follow along and look at the pot when the person first expressed an intention to communication.

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
While dog-lovers the world over have likely suspected that their pets have such talents, the experiment is actually the first to ever use eye-tracking techniques to study canine social skills.

The researchers say that dog social skills reach the level of a two-year-old human, since the only talent that's missing is language.

"Although dogs might use a different cognitive architecture for processing human communication, they can play the role of being a child substitute," Topal said.

"These skills on the part of the dog help to make the human-dog bond stronger, which is actually unique when taking into account the biological differences between the two species."

Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated and for no apparent direct benefit, such as for food or herding, explained Topal. Dog social cognition has evolved over thousands of years, during which time wolf-like capabilities were transformed by the challenges of living with humans.

Topal and his team suspect that horses and domesticated cats may also be able to read human intent, since they too have lived closely with us for many years.

Dogs may be the most perceptive, however.

"Dogs are in a special way tuned in to humans," Topal explained. "They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors."

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
In a separate new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers discovered that dogs communicate with humans to request, but not to inform. Nevertheless, the process is still very focused and intense.

We show "how much dogs are tuned into the intentional dimension of human communication and how important certain signals are for them to know when communication is relevant and directed at them," said Juliane Kaminski, lead author of the paper and a researcher in the Evolutionary Roots of Human Social Interaction group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Topal thinks it's possible that dogs are even sometimes better than adults are at reading human intent, given that they are so attuned to smells, sounds, and other cues.

"They can easily learn to associate even unconscious behavioral cues of their owner with particular consequences," he said. "This way, a dog can acquire an ability to anticipate the owner's behavior, and this may give a false impression of mind-reading."


YelenaC said...

Dogs are so amazing! I thought this very interesting "They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors." They are truly a man's best friend!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

My dogs not only read minds, they are quite adapt at training humans as well. Love these columns Lisa Ann.

Christa said...

This is sweet and totally makes me want a dog until I realize that I will have to clean up the poop and then maybe not so much. Keep doing these. They are great!

homecomingbook said...

I think the most acute mind reading I ever saw was when I was trying to break Derry (Sheltie) of car chasing. I was tracking with him one Saturday and we finished up with my tracking partner driving around while I had the 40' tracking line attached to his collar, trying to tempt him to chase. Nothing. He wouldn't even look at the car. Finally we gave up and without realizing it I shut my end of the line in the car door. As she drove out he took off after the car, hit the end of the line and went about 3' into the air. Only correction I ever succeeded in getting until I got an electronic collar as a last resort.
My current WIP has dogs who are telepathic, and Derry inspired them.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That all makes sense. Dogs always seem to know when we are down. They are more in tune with body language and non-verbal communication than we are.

Sophia Chang said...

I just love dog posts! I saw a documentary about the eye tracking.

Peggy Eddleman said...

So interesting! I love how these questions aren't ones I would ever think of asking myself, but have such great answers!

cherie said...

Wow, fascinating! And it makes so much sense. ;) Cool post!

Donna Perugini said...

I find it fascinating how our animals have taught each other and then passed it on to a new generation.
My collie was inside the house and I was locked outside. I kept calling through the door for him to jump as the handle was an up and down lever. He finally jumped on the handle and saved me from freezing weather as I was in socks with no coat.
Over many weeks the dog kept jumping on the handle to open the door until I had to lock it to keep him outside. That dog then taught our cat, who jumps up while hanging on the door and rattles the locked handle to get my attention. It wouldn't be so bad, except when I'm home at night the woods and hear a door handle rattle. It raises the hair on your neck!

LisaAnn said...

Oh my gosh, what crazy stories! I love hearing all these funny quirks we've experienced with our pets... I swear my dog is smarter than me sometimes... said...

My dog FLIPS out whenever there is any sign of us going on a run. Even though she's pushing eleven. I swear, that the moment I think about going, she knows it, even though I haven't gotten dressed in running stuff yet. This article was interesting. I must be giving off some signal with my peepers that let's her know what's up. I never was very good at hiding my thoughts. ;-)

Pam Asberry said...

Fascinating! This just confirms something I have long believed to be true. I am off to share this with my dog-loving friends on Facebook. Thanks for the great post!

Dinda Amanda said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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