Does Your Dog Know If You’ve Done Something on Purpose?

New study examines whether dogs understand intent.

Sad Faced Dog with Big Brown Eyes
Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

What does your dog do if you lie down on the floor to stretch? Does your dog come to your rescue in the same way as if you had tripped and fallen down, or realize you meant to do that?

In a new study, researchers in Germany conducted a series of experiments to see whether dogs seem to understand whether humans do things on purpose.

“I didn’t expect this—that the dogs would perform so well,” Juliane Bräuer, head of the dog studies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, tells Treehugger. “I have to say that I was quite surprised by these very clear results.”

Bräuer and her colleagues published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

For their study, they had 51 dog owners drop off their pets to the lab. First, the dogs learned that a human experimenter would feed them treats through a gap in a plexiglass partition. And then the researchers set up what is known as an “unwilling vs. unable paradigm” by withholding treats from the dogs.

In the unwilling situation, the experimenter held the food in front of the dogs but didn’t give it to them on purpose, often teasing them before pulling it away.

For the unable situation, they had two conditions, one where the person seemed clumsy and they appeared as if they were trying to give the treat to the dog, but it falls down. In the other, the slot was blocked and they were unable to pass the treat to the pet.

In all three situations, the experimenter left the treat on the floor in front of them. Because the partition was merely a standalone wall and the dogs were not restrained, the pets were easily able to walk around it to get to the treats. They did this each time, but how quickly they retrieved the food depended on the circumstances.

The researchers predicted correctly that the dogs would wait longer to go get the treat if they thought the experimenter didn’t want them to have it, whereas they went to get it quickly when the treat was meant for them.

dog with partition experiment
Dogs went around the partition to retrieve treats faster when they thought they were withheld by accident. Josepha Erlacher

In fact, they found that all the dogs retrieved the treats immediately in the situations where the experimenter was clumsy and appeared to have dropped the treat or had been blocked by the wall.

“You want to give it to me, I'll go and come and get it,” Bräuer imagines the dog thinking. “Whereas in the unwilling condition when the experimenter didn’t give it to the dog on purpose, they would hesitate and wait and even sit down in many cases, thinking, ‘OK. I’m behaving nicely now, so maybe they will feed me again.’”

A similar experiment was done in the past with chimpanzees, where researchers found the animals would react more patiently when food is “accidentally” kept from them because of a clumsy experimenter or blocked partition.

“They probably understood that, ‘This guy is not very skilled but he wants to give the food to me,’” Bräuer suggests.

With the chimp experiment, the animals were kept in a cage, not with an open partition, so when they were deliberately denied food, they could not walk around to get it. In that experiment, they would bang angrily against the cage or walk away from the experimenter.

Intent vs. Learned Behavior

The researchers acknowledge in this new study that more research is needed and there could be other factors that contributed to the dogs’ responses.

Although she thinks the findings are important, Bräuer says she is looking forward to what colleagues around the world will say and how critical they might be.

“We are careful in the paper with our interpretation. Dogs observe us all day long if they have the chance to do so,” she points out. 

She gives the example that if a person picks up a leash, nearly every dog will get up to go for a walk. “Do they know your intention is to go out or they’ve learned that taking the leash means you’re going out?" she asks. "Those are two different things.”

Perhaps in this experiment, the dogs have experienced something in their lives that has already allowed them to distinguish between the situations where the treats were withheld either on purpose or by accident. But it’s unlikely, the researchers say.

“I would say it’s not very typical in the western dog’s life that a human is teasing them in the way the experimenter is teasing the dog here in the unwilling conditions,” Bräuer says. “So I think it suggests they maybe understand something about the situation and it’s not simply learned.”

Bräuer would like to see a follow-up to the chimpanzee study and maybe see how dogs with lots of human experience perform versus dogs with little exposure to humans.

Bräuer understands that canine lovers want to believe that their pets are brilliant and have abilities that science doesn’t always prove they truly have. Sometimes, her team’s research proves things that dog owners always believes, and sometimes it’s the other way around.

“I’m a lot in contact with people who overestimate their dog. I understand it as a dog owner. There are many things they cannot do,” she says.

“I think where dogs are really special is their sensitivity towards humans and this ability they have—they can watch us all day and maybe be able to predict behavior and kind of learn to make the right decisions.”

View Article Sources
  1. Schünemann, Britta, et al. "Dogs Distinguish Human Intentional and Unintentional Action." Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-94374-3

  2. Juliane Bräuer, head of the dog studies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany

  3. Call, Josep, et al. "'Unwilling' Versus 'Unable': Chimpanzees' Understanding of Human Intentional Action." Developmental Science, vol. 7, no. 4, 2004, pp. 488-498., doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2004.00368.x