Can Dogs Read Our Minds?

Posted July 1st, 2011 at 9:52 pm (UTC-4)
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If you have a dog, does it ever seem as if your pet can read your mind? Do you wonder how the animal learns to beg for food or behave badly, mostly when we’re not looking?

According to a newly-released study, the way canines learn to respond to human attentiveness is an indication of the ways dogs think and learn about us humans and our behavior.

Dr. Monique Udell, and her team from the University of Florida, found that dogs gain such intuitive behavior by depending  upon a combination of specific cues, context and previous experience.

Recent research has identified a number of human-like social behaviors in the domestic dog.

Among these behaviors is the animal’s uncanny ability to respond to human body language, the verbal commands we give and how much attention we lavish on the dog.

What the team wanted to know was, how do the dogs do it?

For their project, Dr. Udell’ team worked with three groups of animals;  domestic dogs, dogs living in animal shelters and tamed wolves.

In one experiment, the different groups of dogs were each given the opportunity to beg for food from either a person who is attentive or from one who is unable to even see the animal.

The research team wanted to know whether the rearing and living environment of the animal, or the species itself, had the greater impact on the animal’s performance.

What they found, for the first time, was that wolves, like their domesticated relatives, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human.

This shows that it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the animal is domesticated or non-domesticated, both are able to behave and react to a human who is attentive.

The research team also found that the different groups of animals didn’t sense all of the visual cues of a human’s attention in the same way.

Dogs that lived in a home environment, as opposed to those who lived in a shelter, were more sensitive to the visual cues that predicted attentive humans.

The dogs that had less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging task.

Dr. Udell says the study results suggest that a dog’s ability to follow human actions comes from its willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with how they learned to follow the movement and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement.

She added that the type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented and previous experience are all important too.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Monique Udell tells us about her team’s study and gives us some insight into the human-canine relationship.

Listen to the interview here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:


Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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