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Dogs can tell when you want to give them a treat – even if you don’t

Pet dogs respond more patiently when humans clumsily drop a treat out of reach than when it is intentionally pulled away, suggesting canines can understand human intentions


25 January 2023

cute small jack russell terrier dog standing on two paws asking for treats to owner. Pets outdoors and lifestyle; Shutterstock ID 1795864654; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

Pet dogs know when you intend to give them a treat, even if you drop it where they can’t get to it

Shutterstock / eva_blanco

Dogs can understand when humans mean well, even if they don’t get what they want from us. Prior to this work, the ability to distinguish between a human being unwilling or unable to perform a task had only been found in non-human primates.

The close social bond between humans and canines is well established, but researchers have a limited understanding of if and how dogs comprehend human intent. To see if pet dogs can distinguish between intentional and accidental actions by strangers, Christoph Völter at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria and his colleagues ran tests with humans offering dogs food while the animals’ body movements were tracked using eight cameras.

Each dog and human were separated by a transparent plastic panel with holes that a slice of sausage could be passed through. In 96 trials of 48 pet dogs, human participants either teased the dog by holding up and pulling back a treat, or they pretended to clumsily drop the piece of sausage on their own side of the panel before the dog could eat it.

In all trials, the dogs had to wait 30 seconds before finally getting their reward, during which the team tracked their reaction. A machine learning algorithm trained to detect and follow specific points on the dogs’ bodies let the researchers analyse the dogs’ body language.

They found that when humans pretended to drop a treat compared with when they intentionally pulled it away, the dogs responded more patiently: they made more eye contact with the experimenter, wagged their tails more and stayed closer to the transparent barrier, suggesting they were still expecting a treat. Dogs that were teased sat, laid down and backed away the barrier more frequently. The results were similar across different dog breeds, ages and sex.

In the clumsy trial, the dogs also wagged their tails more on their right side, a behaviour known to be associated with dogs that are happy and relaxed. “They have more positive emotions towards the clumsy experimenter, which might indicate that they indeed understand that the experimenter is willing, but just too clumsy, to give them food,” says Völter.

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Source link It’s no secret that dogs are intelligent and emotional animals, but the idea that a pup can guess the exact moment you want to give it a tasty treat is something special. Recent research has indicated that our canine companions can actually tell when we want to give them a treat – even if we don’t ask them to take it.

To test this theory, a team of researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria had 22 dogs wear an EEG cap – a device that measures the brain’s electrical activity. While wearing the cap, the dogs were shown images of their owners either clearly holding something in their hands, holding nothing, or patting their bodies.

The researchers found that the dogs’ brains reacted differently when their owners were holding something in their hands compared to when their owners were doing nothing. The results showed that the pooches’ brains responded in the same pattern, regardless of whether the object in their owner’s hand was a tasty treat or something else. The pattern of the brain activity suggests that the dogs were merely expecting something from their owners – not necessarily a treat.

The researchers concluded that this shows dogs can interpret their owners’ intentions – even when they’re not explicitly stated. The study’s lead researcher, Elisabetta Palagi, said this research demonstrates the deep bond between humans and dogs. “It shows that dogs are very sensitive to our body language signals,” she said. “They sense our intent to reward them, even when rewards do not materialize.”

This study is a wonderful reminder of the unspoken bond between dogs and their owners – and the remarkable empathy they share. Whether they’re our beloved canine pals or not, all dogs have the intelligence, emotion, and ability to sense our intentions, even when we’re not saying anything. It’s an incredible reminder of how special our furry friends really are.

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