5 comments June 4th, 2007at 11:36am Posted by Eli

Fascinating story about dog brains in today’s WaPo:

The provocative new experiment indicated that dogs can do something that previously only humans, including infants, have been shown capable of doing: decide how to imitate a behavior based on the specific circumstances in which the action takes place.

“The fact that the dogs imitate selectively, depending on the situation — that has not been shown before,” said Friederike Range of the University of Vienna, who led the study. “That’s something completely new.”


The study was inspired by research with human infants. Fourteen-month-olds will imitate an adult turning on a light with her forehead only if they see her doing it with her hands free. If the adult is clutching a blanket, infants will use their hands, presumably because they can reason that the adult resorted to using her forehead because she had no choice.


To determine whether an animal could respond similarly, Range and her colleagues trained Guinness, a female border collie, to push a wooden rod with her paw to get a treat. A dog generally does not use its paws to do tasks, preferring to use its mouth whenever possible. So the key question was whether dogs that watched Guinness would decide how to get the treat depending on the circumstances.

After making sure the owners could not influence their pets’ behavior, researchers tested three groups of dogs. The first 14, representing a variety of breeds, did not watch Guinness. When taught how to use the rod, about 85 percent pushed it with their mouth, confirming that is how dogs naturally like to do things.

The second group of 21 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly push the rod with her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. In that group, most of the dogs — about 80 percent — used their mouth, imitating the action but not the exact method Guinness had used. That suggested the dogs — like the children — decided Guinness was only using her paw because she had no choice.


The third group of 19 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly use a paw on the rod with her mouth free. Most of those dogs — 83 percent — imitated her behavior exactly, using their paws and not their mouth. That suggested they concluded there must be some good reason to act against their instincts and do it like Guinness.

“The behavior was very similar to the children who were tested in the original experiment,” said Zsofia Viranyi of Eotvos University in Budapest, who helped conduct the experiment, published in the May 15 issue of the journal Current Biology. “Whether they imitate or not depends on the context. It’s not automatic, insightless copying. It’s more sophisticated. There’s a kind of inferential process going on. ”


The findings stunned many researchers.

“What’s surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans,” said Brian Hare, who studies dogs at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. “Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought.”

The experiment suggests that dogs can put themselves inside the head of another dog — and perhaps people — to make relatively complex decisions.

“This suggests they can actually think about your intention — they can look for explanations of your behavior and make inferences about what you are thinking,” Hare said.

Others go even further, suggesting the findings indicate that dogs have a sense of awareness.

“It really shows a higher level of consciousness,” said Stanley Coren at the University of British Columbia, who studies how dogs think. “This takes a real degree of consciousness.”

I’m really more of a cat person, but this is still pretty cool.

Also, just how big is the field of Dog Studies anyway?

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science


  • 1. David (Austin Tx)  |  June 4th, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    That is cool.

    I am a dog person, and have seen my dogs do things which I just put down to imitating their human pets, or intuiting things that will get them additional praise or treats.

    However, it certainly appears there is more than just the innate action/reward behavior that is generally accepted.

  • 2. PoliShifter  |  June 4th, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    I have long beleived that animals have forms of consciousness and do not act on instinct alone as many contend.

    Dogs and be smart and dumb…but so can humans.

    Now if we could just train George W Bush to NOT push the button…

  • 3. Eli  |  June 4th, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Now if we could just train George W Bush to NOT push the button…

    I’m afraid the rolled-up newspaper moment has passed. Dubya has accumulated political squeaky toys, and he intends to squeak them.

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