Dogs may understand human point of view

Dr Juliane Kaminski and her dog, Ambula

Dr Juliane Kaminski and her dog, Ambula

Domestic dogs are much more likely to steal food when they think nobody can see them, suggesting for the first time they are capable of understanding a human’s point of view.

Many dog owners think their pets are clever or that they understand humans but, until now, this has not been tested by science.

Dr Juliane Kaminski, of the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology, has shown that when a human forbids a dog from taking food, dogs are four times more likely to disobey in a dark room than a lit room, suggesting they take into account what the human can or cannot see.

Dr Kaminski said: “That’s incredible because it implies dogs understand the human can’t see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective.”

This is the first study to examine if dogs differentiate between different levels of light when they are developing strategies on whether to steal food. It is published in the journal Animal Cognition. The research was funded by the Max Planck Society, Dr Kaminski’s former employer.

Dr Kaminski said: “Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that’s us thinking, not them.

“These results suggest humans might be right, where dogs are concerned, but we still can’t be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others’ minds. It has always been assumed only humans had this ability.”

The research is an incremental step in our understanding of dogs’ ability to think and understand which could, in turn, be of use to those who work with dogs, including the police, the blind and those who use gun dogs, as well as those who keep them as pets.

Dr Kaminski ran a series of experiments in varied light conditions. In each test, a dog was forbidden by a human from taking the food. When the room was dark, the dogs took more food and took it more quickly than when the room was lit.

The tests were complex and involved many variables to rule out that dogs were basing their decisions on simple associative rules, for example, that dark means food.

There is no evidence on how well dogs can see in the dark, but the results of this research show dogs can differentiate between light and dark.

Dr Kaminski said: “The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”

Dogs’ understanding may be limited to the here and now, rather than on any higher understanding, Dr Kaminski said, and more research is needed to identify what mechanisms are controlling dogs’ behaviour.

In total, 42 female and 42 male domestic dogs aged one year or older took part in the tests. They were chosen only if they were comfortable without their owners in the room, even in complete darkness, and if they were interested in food. “Some dogs are more interested in by food than others,” Dr Kaminski said.

Previous studies have shown chimpanzees have a sophisticated understanding and seem to know when someone else can or can’t see them and can also remember what others have seen in the past. It is not known how sophisticated dogs’ understanding is in comparison. Many earlier research papers have found that, for dogs, a human’s eyes are an important signal when deciding how to behave, and that they respond more willingly to attentive humans, than inattentive ones.

28 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. How about this: we had an Irish Setter (an extraordinarily large one, weighing about 125 pounds); we baked some chocolate chip cookies, left them on top of the fridge to cool and went out; when we got back, we found the dog had gotten up on a chair next to the fridge and eaten the entire plate of cookies; he got a rap on the nose with a newspaper and a reprimand; about a month later we made more cookies and unthinkingly went off again leaving them to cool on the fridge. When we got back this time, we found that only HALF the cookies had been eaten AND THAT THE DOG HAD EATEN ONLY THOSE ON THE BACK PART OF THE PLATE AWAY FROM OBVIOUS VIEW. He got no reprimand, but a big admiring hug and copious praise. We were stunned at how brilliantly he’d thought it all out!

    • I had a husband who was pretty severely deaf, and slept without hearing aids.

      One morning, I had neglected to feed the cat before I left for work. The cat wanted breakfast. His solution was to jump onto the bed, go to the ear of the sleeping man, and MEOW very loudly directly into the ear. I was told that it about levitated the unsuspecting man off the mattress.

      Now, how did the cat know that the human was deaf? And given that human ears are not placed analogously to cat ears on the head, how did the cat know just where to voice his complaint?

      • Animals are acutely aware of humans as well as other animals in the home. I enjoyed your anecdote, it is proof!

  2. I had a bearded collie who was a real gannet when it came to food (human food). Despite being told off regularly he would still jump up at the kitchen work tops and take food if he knew he had a chance. He would even follow us out of the kitchen, wait to see that we had settled before returning to raid the kitchen.

    Not wishing to be cynical, but is this another piece of research that most people could have told you the result of without going to the expense of official research?

    • It is anecdotes like yours which may inspire the research.
      However the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, hence the need for scientific investigation.
      Thousands of people have claimed to have witnessed alien spaceships; however there is no scientific evidence whatsoever.

  3. Dogs (and many other animals) are “able” to “see” “spirits” They can communicate using esp. They know your “thoughts”. They know if you are “evil” or a “good” person. They can sense your positive & negative energy. They know when you have epilepsy, diabetes, etc and when you are going to have an “episode” before you have it. Their sense of taste, smell, hearing is far beyond that of humans. In an animal control shelter, they “know” if they are not “selected” to go home with a family, heir days are numbered. They know. They also have a built in gps to help them travel thousands of miles to return home to their families when they get lost from their families. They also have Excellent memories. They can remember you years later, when you show up again. They have memories of themselves when they were a puppy and what they did as a puppy. Dogs are a lot smarter than a lot of humans.

    • You make a lot of substantiated claims with poorly defined terms.

  4. Our poodle shitzu mix knows my entire line of sight, when I am watching TV. If he wants something and I am ignoring him, he will block my view to the television. He knows EXACTLY where to sit anywhere along the fifteen feet between me and the TV !

  5. It is really tragic that animals should be stranded in a planet where the dominant animal i.e. human beings should be arrogant and operate from a point of self-appointed divinity. Animals have been given the same body system we, humans, have. They are born, grow and age just as humans do. They suffer toothaches, joint pains, diabetes and all the illnessses we humans do. Therefore, they are able to feel pain, dread the vet, dread the cruelty of some of their ‘owners,’. Have you ever looked into the eyes of an abused animal? Their eyes and frowing are full of sorrow, and fear’; of resignation. They are no different than a child or a smal human being stranded in a land that speaks a foreign language, unable to be understood by others.. Our pets and farm animals, use body language. They also use their voices to communicate. The problem with us HUMANS. We are unable to understand them because we think we are sooo special; language is only ours, intelligence is only ours. This assumption makes it easier to use, abuse and dispense with their bodies and lives as we see fit. If we were to recognize that these beings think, feel, very much like us, we could not eat them, beat them, rape them or use them in experiments with card blanch. Remember slavery? or the conquest of the native of the Americas? The conquerors of the America’s felt at ease dispensing with the lives of the natives because they ‘had no soul.’ That was the same argument given by slave owners. Black slaves were looked as beings without soul thus giving permission for all sorts of cruelty against them.. Today, we do the same to animals. Dr. Kamiski and the lot of scientis who waste untold hours of study to come up with baseless arguments such as that emotions perceived in animals are imagined or projected by their owners. Only a blind man can really say that. Humans, wake up, we live in a world where we cause untold pain, horror and sorrow on billions of creatures that feel physical and emotional pain. We must wake up and be just. In order to truly understand animals we must break with the indoctrination that tell us an animal is a thing to be used. And wethink we are soooo envolved . . . . !

    • I agree with your assessment that our view of animals is similar to other groups that have been historically marginalized. It is this sustaining viewpoint which has allowed us as a species to disregard animals’ feelings and rationalize their maltreatment. Many people who do not believe that animals do indeed have feelings accuse those of us who live with animals and witness first hand their unique personality and expression of emotion as “anthropomorphizing” them. This viewpoint indeed reflects an egocentric bias which humans have adopted—however, what I believe started out as a strategy to elevate ourselves, it has consequently brought others down. This set the stage for the nonchalance and cruelty that is currently present in our society. Hopefully, with expanded awareness, things can eventually change for the better for our four-legged companions.

    • You took the words out of my mouth Haydee!! Unfortunately Jax, things won’t change much until stricter laws are in place. About a week ago, a fellow rescuer was hoping to get help with an abandoned puppy in an empty home. All day and thru the night the innocent puppy cried in distress, she eventually got it out. When the cops came, she knew she would be charged with traspassing, and she was ok with that, as long as the puppy was safe. But instead, the cops returned the pet to the family that had left him behind in an empty house, and charged her with traspassing. No charges to the family. And that same day, the puppy was back in the empty house crying in distress, no food, no water, in a Texas home with no electricity or open windows for air. We need to punish the crime, we need to make it known that it won’t be tolerated, otherwise its just like we’re agreeing with the neglect and abuse. I will never be silent, until the laws punish the real criminals!!!

  6. It is really tragic that animals should be stranded in a planet where the dominant animal i.e. human beings should be arrogant and operate from a point of self-appointed divinity. Animals have been given the same body system we, humans, have. They are born, grow and age just as humans do. They suffer toothaches, joint pains, diabetes and all the illnessses we humans do. Therefore, they are able to feel pain, dread the vet, dread the cruelty of some of their ‘owners,’. Have you ever looked into the eyes of an abused animal? Their eyes and frowing are full of sorrow, and fear’; of resignation. They are no different than a child or a smal human being stranded in a land that speaks a foreign language, unable to be understood by others.. Our pets and farm animals, use body language. They also use their voices to communicate. The problem with us HUMANS. We are unable to understand them because we think we are sooo special; language is only ours, intelligence is only ours. This assumption makes it easier to use, abuse and dispense with their bodies and lives as we see fit. If we were to recognize that these beings think, feel, very much like us, we could not eat them, beat them, rape them or use them in experiments with card blanch. Remember slavery? or the conquest of the native of the Americas? The conquerors of the America’s felt at ease dispensing with the lives of the natives because they ‘had no soul.’ That was the same argument given by slave owners. Black slaves were looked as beings without soul thus giving permission for all sorts of cruelty against them.. Today, we do the same to animals. Dr. Kamiski and the lot of scientis who waste untold hours of study to come up with baseless arguments such as that emotions perceived in animals are imagined or projected by their owners. Only a blind man can really say that. Humans, wake up, we live in a world where we cause untold pain, horror and sorrow on billions of creatures that feel physical and emotional pain. We must wake up and be just. In order to truly understand animals we must break with the indoctrination that tell us an animal is a thing to be used. And wethink we are soooo evolved . . . . !

  7. Christmas morning, came out to find that our dog, had found his present under the tree, unwrapped it, and was playing with it. The look on his face was priceless. Have to say, the present, was under a lot of stuff too.

  8. My niece communicates with her animals (cats, dogs, horses, chickens, etc) telepathically. She has a very large pit bull dog. If you sit in a yard swing or chair in the yard, the dog tries to climb up into your lap to sit, but she is a huge dog and is unable to “fit” in anyone’s lap.
    She said the dog “told” her “She remembers when she was a puppy and many children and family members held this dog lovingly in their laps. She still wants to sit in everyone’s lap and be held lovingly again.”
    This dog does not realize she is just huge and is not able to fit in anyone’s lap.
    My niece brought the dog home when the dog was abandoned and was starving on the streets.
    She is a very Loving dog.

  9. Really speaking I ma amazed to read how the dog has fooled all…..of course they will try to find the food they have been forbidden…it is a natural instinct….ever watched your dog at home…..as soon as you are not looking he will be’ in like flynn’ to get the meat chop or whatever……..next we will be told that the cunning old fox is not cunning but has an innate sort of radar that allows him to navigate at night and raid the chicken coop….a sort of super intelligence…..surely Dr Julian would be better to use her undoubted intelligence in a more challenging way

  10. I haven’t read the research article itself, but based on the text above it seems to me that saying a dog understands the human point of view is not the most probable conclusion and rather a case of wishful thinking.
    You could turn it around and say: -As long as a dog sees (the face of) an ‘authority figure’, it is less inclined to eat ‘forbidden’ food.- Seeing a face while doing something bad, means punishment.
    So rather a case of operational conditioning than the much more complex understanding of another’s cognition.

  11. Just an anecdote that accords with the research. I tend to go for a walk with 6 year old labrador around 6pm so some of the year we do the walk in the light and some of the year in the dark. Dog is obsessed by playing with tennis balls and this is the walk when he is able to go mad chasing the balls that I obediently kick/throw for him. In the light he will stop at a distance from a ball and look around waiting for me to do something with it. But in the dark he approaches the ball and stares at it intently sometimes at quite a close distance. I liked to think that he knew that my human vision wasn’t brilliant in the dark and that I needed help to participate properly in the game, and now I suspect that it is true!

  12. Please don’t reprimand or use newspapers to teach your dog this is fear based training which is cruel times have moved on. You should never physiclly harm a dog as it puts yourself in danger. if your dog bites you don’t be suprised! Remember the dog will all ways win he has pointy sharp teeth and you don’t.

    Positive training is much better!

    I own a cocker spaniel my dog knows exactly who is at the door she knows the different paper boys and posties just by their footsteps and the sound of our cars. If its a familiar postie she wont bark at them if we get a different one she will bark her head off till the postie is gone along with any paper boys. She can hear people in the neighbours gardens even if she can’t.

  13. Our lab would visit the neighbors on a regular basis. He would open their screen door and lay on their kitchen floor waiting for a snack. When they got their own dog he wasn’t happy because the little dog would jump all over him. The neighbors installed an invisible fence so their dog would stay in the yard. Our lab would take their dogs toys and place them on the other side of the electric fence. Just far enough so their dog could see the toys but couldn’t get them without getting shocked. He would lay by the toys and watch the dog pace. After a while he’d get up, walk away and I know there was a smug look on his face. There is so much we don’t know about our animals. Miss Koko, he was a great dog.

  14. Our dog Bajka has always stolen food from our cat’s bowl when
    I was talking by phone….:D
    She knew that nobody looked at her at these moments.

  15. Not food related, but my beloved Labrador Retriever, Sandy (RIP), was forbidden to go on the couch. I was in the den, with my back turned to her, when my son invited her up on the couch. She turned and looked to see if I was watching (I was, out of the corner of my eye but my back was to her) and climbed up. After I stifled my laughter, I turned around and looked at her and she got right down.

  16. The ignorant arrogance of science is astounding sometimes. Any animal that has to survive in the wilderness knows what this report is saying about dogs. What do you think a deer is thinking when it gets to a pond and starts to drink, that they’re just dumb animals who don’t understand that there may be another animal like a lion nearby who wants to kill them? Of course they do. They approach carefully and watch to see if any predators are around who might might punish them with death. That is understanding that there is another point of view of another creature. Dog’s have that same innate knowledge, but they apply it in a domestic setting.

    Animals are very intelligent. Humans do have a higher intelligence, but not when it comes to survival. We have bread that out of us, so it’s no wonder we are surprised when we learn that animals have retained it. Many animals learn early on to understand that other animals, including humans, have a point of view of wanting to eat them, and there is also the pack mentality of knowing who is top dog.

    I love my dogs, and our cats. They’re smarter than most humans I know. The only thing this report proves to me is that there are a lot of scientists who should have had a pet growing up.

  17. Umm, cockroaches steal food when it’s dark too.

    Seriously though, I saw a doco a few years ago that was about how monkeys don’t understand the pointing gesture, like when you point at what you are telling someone about. Dogs understand when you point at something, but chimps and other monkeys just don’t get it.

  18. So what you have proven is my dog steals food when I’m not looking? And he knows when I’m not looking. Beagle owners can tell you far more amazing stories than your light/dark room study. Not scientific, of-course. I don’t think you have proven that dogs have a human perspective but have found that dogs have an
    insctinctual survival mechnaism.
    Perhaps ” human perspective.” needs to be deffined more clearly…Dog thinks ” I should not take that pork chop because “mom” is planning to serve it for dinner? ” Now that would be the humans perspective.

  19. I have no doubt that dogs ( animals in general ) can think and can understand. More people should realize this and not think…” ah, its just a dumb dog” I think some dogs are smarter than allot of people out there.

  20. Talk about anthropomorphic explanations and this is supposed to be from a psychologist! Humbug! It’s not a human point of view that the dogs understand. All pack animals know that a kill is more likely under cover of darkness. Do try to get this straight dog-lovers. DOGS DO NOT THINK it is you who think that they think like you
    Iain Ballantyne
    Chartered Occupational Psychologist
    Portsmouth Business School

  21. Here’s a case that doesn’t involve food. Our dog had a case of dermatitis last year that we had a hard time getting under control. When he scratched excessively, we would tell him to stop. After a few days, he would go into a closet to scratch. I interpret this as him knowing this is something that he is not supposed to do, so he thought if he did it out of our sight, he could assuage his itch in peace.

    I don’t know if this means he understands our point of view, but he knew he wanted to scratch and figured out a way to do it that wouldn’t result in a “no.”

    Just intuitively, it seems like this is different from dogs getting on couches or breaking other “rules” when we’re not home. When we leave the house, the dog is “in charge.” When he hides to do a forbidden behavior or does it in the dark when we’re present, it seems like some other process is at work.

    By the way, we soon got the dermatitis under control which made the exercise moot — fortunately.

  22. Story 1 od 2

    Not about food, but to me, really amazing anecdotes.
    1.
    Years ago we bought a Jack Russell puppy who was around 8weeks old. She grew up with our daughter who was 2yrs old when “Lady” came to live with us.
    Lady and my elderly father formed a mutual admiration society and loved each other dearly. After some years, we lived on the other side of the city to my father. Dad would come to visit us unannounced, travelling by bus. He would not phone and his visits were irregular, but invariably, Lady would meet him at the bus stop. How did she know he was coming? That is still a mystery to me.

    2.
    This one has me blown away!
    In May this year, my granddaughter, her husband and their new baby came down from Darwin in the Northern Territory Aust, to Brisbane for a visit. Son-in-law returned to his Navy posting in Darwin after a week and GD decided that she would stay on in Brisbane for a few weeks to mind her parents house whilst they were working “off shore”, so had her Rhodesian Ridgeback cross, Barney, flown down from Darwin.
    Barney and Lacy – daughter’s little fluffy terrier of some sort – immediately became fast friends.
    One morning, the pair of them disappeared. Granddaughter discovered the gate had been opened, but the dogs were nowhere to be found. A couple of hours later she received a call from the local Vet Hospital to say that the dogs were there (both dogs were micro chipped so were easily identified.)

    But here’s the punch line: The dogs were waiting outside the local vet hosp for the door to open. Both had lacerations, apparently from barbed wire – Barney had some broken pieces of barbed wire in the cuts to his shoulders. Lacy had minor lacerations. Where they had been is unknown; possibly around the storm water drain in the bottom of the park behind the house. The drain has a barbed wire barrier. YUK!

    How did they know to take themselves off to the hospital? Lacy had been there before when she had a minor injury, so possibly she associated the building with relief from pain.
    We’ll never know:)

    I’m totally astounded about that.

    Mary

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