If you’ve ever stepped on your dog’s paw, you probably apologized a thousand times. But does your dog understand that it was an accident? Do they know that you never meant to hurt them? Luckily, a new study reveals that they might!
According to research from the Max Planck Institute, dogs may understand the difference between intentional and unintentional actions. It’s unclear how much your dog comprehends, but these findings show that they understand us more than we realize. Plus, your dog probably already knows that you’d never purposely hurt them.
The Study’s Setup
51 dogs participated in the study. Each dog sat across from a human with a see-through wall in between them. The wall had an opening with just enough space to pass a treat through. There was also nothing stopping the dogs from walking around the wall to get to the human.
The study started with the human passing treats to the dog through the hole in the wall. Then, the human began withholding treats from the dogs. Some treats were withheld “on purpose” while others were withheld “by accident.”
In the accidental scenarios, the human could either pretend to clumsily drop the treat or try to pass a treat to the dog, but the opening would be covered. In the on-purpose attempts, the human would be about to give the treat to the dog, but then pull it away and set it on the floor.
When the dogs didn’t get the treats, researchers waited to see how they reacted. Since the barrier was not closed off on either side, the dogs could walk around and grab the treats if they wanted.
What Did They Discover?
In most instances, the dogs walked around the barrier to eat the withheld treat. Yet, if the treat was “accidentally” withheld, they were much quicker to grab it. When they thought the human purposely didn’t want them to have the treat, they waiting longer and showed most hesitancy.
Some dogs didn’t even try to get the treat when it was purposely withheld. Instead, they sat patiently as if they expected to earn the treat by behaving.
“I have to say I was surprised. I didn’t expect to have this clear picture,” said Juliane Bräuer, head of the dog studies lab.
These results are unexpected because the dogs probably weren’t used to being teased with treats. Thus, the results might suggest that dogs have some understanding of human intentions.
A study with chimpanzees had a similar result. When chimps were denied treats on purpose, they got frustrated and walked away. But when it seemed accidental, the chimps would try to help the humans pick up the treat through the glass.
Scientists are Still Skeptical
Scientists had mixed opinions when it came to this study’s results. Some said that it makes complete sense for dogs to behave this way. Others argue that more research needs to be done.
“Distinguishing between intentional and non-intentional behavior within one’s species brings critical survival advantages; being able to generalize this to another species, albeit one that co-evolved with you lends further support to the claim that dogs are distinguishing the behaviors based on their intentions rather than some other cue,” said Dr. Suilin Lavelle, a lecturer from the University of Edinburgh.
Yet, dogs that aren’t as comfortable around humans might not have the same results. It’s also unclear how much training these dogs had beforehand. It’s possible that some of them were trained not to grab a treat that wasn’t given to them.
“I’m not convinced,” said Clive Wynne, the director of Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. “I think it’s a fascinating question, but it’s a tremendously difficult question to get a handle on, and so at this point, I think the jury is still out on whether dogs actually understand human intentions or not.”
It’s unclear if dogs can understand our intentions, but this study proves that there’s a good chance they might. Of course, it’s okay to still apologize to them whenever you make a mistake. They’ll still forgive you and love you anyway.