Dogs Are Much Better Than We Knew at Reading Human Thoughts

Photo: Frederike Wunsch/EyeEm/Getty Images

Dogs may be goofy and slobbery and adorably silly, but they’re also a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for. It’s not just that your canine pal knows when to ignore your dumb human advice (he does) or that he can tell when you’re being a bit of a jerk to other people (though he understands that, too). As Science of Us has previously explained, the ability to take someone else’s perspective, called “theory of mind,” has generally been considered a skill unique to humans — but a study recently published in the journal Animal Cognition suggests that dogs have it, too.

In the study, the dogs observed a human hiding food in one of several containers as a second human, dubbed the “knower,” looked on and a third, the “guesser,” looked away. A screen prevented the dogs from seeing which container had been chosen, and all of them had been treated with the smell of meat, to prevent the dogs from sniffing out the right one.

Once the food was hidden, the researchers removed the screen to make the containers visible, and the knower and the guesser each pointed to different ones, giving the dog a choice of which one to trust. “This means that the tested dogs, in order to get the food, had to judge who is the Knower by adopting the informants’ perspectives and following their gazes,” lead study author Ludwig Huber, a biologist at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, explained in a statement.

And around 70 percent of the time, the dogs did just what Huber outlined: They understood which of the humans had seen the food being hidden, and used that secondhand knowledge strategically, picking the more informed of the two humans to lead them to it — a finding the researchers described as “solid evidence for geometrical gaze-following and perspective-taking in dogs.”

“The ability to interpret our behaviour and anticipate our intentions, which has obviously developed through a combination of domestication and individual experience, seems to have supported the ability to adopt our perspective,” Huber said. In other words: Your dog gets you. Whether they use that for good or for evil, though, is another story — after all, the better dogs understand what makes you tick, the more easily they can manipulate you into handing out snacks.

Dogs Are Much Better Than We Knew at Reading Human Thoughts