Tag Archives: Animal Cognition

Dogs can adopt the perspective of humans

Humans are able to interpret the behaviour of others by attributing mental states to them (and to themselves). By adopting the perspectives of other persons, they can assume their emotions, needs and intentions and react accordingly.

In the animal kingdom, the ability to attribute mental states (Theory of Mind) is a highly contentious issue. Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna could prove with a new test procedure that dogs are not only able to identify whether a human has an eye on a food source and, therefore, knows where the food has been hidden. They can also apply this knowledge in order to correctly interpret cues by humans and find food they cannot see themselves.

This perspective taking ability is an important component of social intelligence. It helps dogs to cope with the human environment. The results have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

 

The so-called Theory of Mind describes the ability in humans to understand mental states in conspecifics such as emotions, intentions, knowledge, beliefs and desires. This ability develops in humans within the first four or five years of life while it is usually denied in animals. Indications that animals can understand mental states or even states of knowledge of others have only been found in apes and corvids so far. Dogs have been tested several times, but the results were poor and contradictory.

With a new experimental approach, cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute could now provide solid evidence for dogs being able to adopt our perspective. By adopting the position of a human and following their gaze, dogs understand what the human could see and, consequently, know.

This ability to ascribe knowledge is only a component of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but an important one.

Identifying the right informant

The so-called Guesser-Knower paradigm is a standard test in research into the attribution of knowledge to others. This experiment involves two persons: a “Knower” who hides food, invisibly for the dog, in one of several food containers or knows where somebody else has hided it, and a “Guesser”. The Guesser has either not been in the room or covered her eyes during the hiding of the food. A non-transparent wall blocks the animals’ view of the food being hidden. After that, the two humans become informants by pointing to different food containers.

The Knower always points to the baited container and the Guesser to another one. All containers smell of food. “To get the food, the dogs have to understand who knows the hiding place (Knower) and who does not and can, therefore, only guess (Guesser). They must identify the informant they can rely on if they have to decide for one food container,” said principal investigator Ludwig Huber. In approximately 70 per cent of the cases the dogs chose the container indicated by the Knower – and thus were able to successfully accomplish the test. This result was independent of the position of the food container, the person acting as the Knower and where the Guesser was looking.

Eye on hidden food source

Dogs are able to identify the human having an eye on a hidden food source. (Photo: Ludwig Huber/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Dogs can adopt human perspectives

The only aim of this test series, however, was to independently confirm a study carried out in New Zealand. Clear evidence of dogs being able to adopt our perspective and take advantage of it was provided in a new test developed by the team, the so-called “Guesser looking away” test.

In this new experiment, a third person in the middle hides the food. This person does not give cues later on. The potential informants were kneeing left and right of this hider and looked to the same side and slightly down. Thus, one of the two persons looked towards the baiter, the other person looked away. “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,” explained Huber. Even in this test, which is very difficult for the animals, approximately 70 per cent of the trials had been mastered.

Adopting the human perspective leads to invisible food

Being able to adopt the perspective of a human does, however, not require the ability to understand intentions or wishes. “But the study showed that dogs can find out what humans or conspecifics can or cannot see,” explained Huber. “By adopting the positions of humans and following their gazes geometrically, they find out what humans see and, therefore, know – and consequently whom they can trust or not.”

In similar experiments, chimpanzees and few bird species such as scrub jays and ravens were able to understand the state of knowledge and also the intentions of conspecifics and modify their own behaviour accordingly. For dogs, there have only been specualtions and vague indications so far. But dogs understand our behaviour very well, for example our degree of attention. They can learn from directly visible cues such as gestures or gazes. Thus, they are able to find food even if their view of it has been blocked. “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,” said Huber. “It still remains unclear which cognitive mechanisms contribute to this ability. But it helps dogs to find their way in our world very well.”

Source:  University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna media release

Praise or food?

Given the choice, many dogs prefer praise from their owners over food, suggests a new study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The study is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioral experiments to explore canine reward preferences.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and lead author of the research. “Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”

food-or-praise

Praise Pooch: Most of the dogs in the experiments preferred praise over food, or liked them both equally. Kady, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, was the top dog when it came to the strength of her preference for praise.

Dogs were at the center of the most famous experiments of classical conditioning, conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov showed that if dogs are trained to associate a particular stimulus with food, the animals salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus, in anticipation of the food.

“One theory about dogs is that they are primarily Pavlovian machines: They just want food and their owners are simply the means to get it,” Berns says. “Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. In previous research, the Dog Project identified the ventral caudate region of the canine brain as a reward center. It also showed how that region of a dog’s brain responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

chowhound

Chowhound: Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time. “Ozzie was a bit of an outlier,” Berns says, “but Ozzie’s owner understands him and still loves him.”

For the current experiment, the researchers began by training the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes. A pink toy truck signaled a food reward; a blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signaled no reward, to serve as a control.
The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an fMRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.

All of the dogs showed a stronger neural activation for the reward stimuli compared to the stimulus that signaled no reward, and their responses covered a broad range. Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

The dogs then underwent a behavioral experiment. Each dog was familiarized with a room that contained a simple Y-shaped maze constructed from baby gates: One path of the maze led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner. The owners sat with their backs toward their dogs. The dog was then repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths. If they came to the owner, the owner praised them.

“We found that the caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” Berns says. “Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make. Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

The experiments lay the groundwork for asking more complicated questions about the canine experience of the world. The Berns’ lab is currently exploring the ability of dogs to process and understand human language.

“Dogs are hypersocial with humans,” Berns says, “and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding.”

Source:  Emory University media release

Words we say to our dogs and other things

Yet more research on the human-animal bond.  This time the research was based at Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab.

Researchers Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht asked members of the public to send them videos of playtime with their dogs.

Dog with frisbee

They received 187 videos from dog owners in 19 different countries and watched them all, looking for patterns in human behaviour and the dog’s responses.

For example, they created a list of the top 35 words owners used with their dogs:

List of words dog owners use

The research team also noticed gender differences.  Female owners touch their dogs more when at play; half of male owners didn’t touch their dogs at all.

There is a practical application for this research (although I do agree that it sounds like a fun job).  There is a growing interest in helping to train dogs as assistance dogs and understanding how humans and dog interact may help to refine training techniques.

The research has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Source:  Discover magazine

Adjusting stress levels for mellow vs hyper dogs

People aren’t the only ones who perform better on tests or athletic events when they are just a little bit nervous — dogs do too. But in dogs as in people, the right amount of stress depends on disposition.

A new study by researchers at Duke University finds that a little extra stress and stimulation makes hyper dogs crack under pressure but gives mellow dogs an edge.  (These findings will be relevant to any owner who is competing in agility or obedience with their dog.)

The findings appear online in the journal Animal Cognition.

According to an idea in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson law, a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point.

A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard to stay engaged and perform at one’s peak. But when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.

The idea is the relationship between stress and performance follows a Goldilocks model:  Both people and animals function best when the level of stress is not too much, nor too little, but just right.

When you’re taking a test, for example, it helps to be a little bit anxious so you don’t just blow it off,” said study co-author Emily Bray, who was an undergraduate at Duke at the time of the study. “But if you’re too nervous, even if you study and you really know the material, you aren’t going to perform at your best.”

Researchers first observed this pattern more than a hundred years ago in lab rats, but it has since been demonstrated in chickens, cats and humans. In a new study, a Duke team consisting of Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center wanted to find out if the conditions that enable certain animals to do their best also depend on the animal’s underlying temperament.

In a series of experiments, the researchers challenged dogs to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier that was six feet wide and three feet tall. To get it right, the dogs had to resist the impulse to try to take the shortest path to reach the treat — which would only cause them to whack into the barrier and bump their heads against the plastic — and instead walk around the barrier to one of the open sides.

In one set of trials, an experimenter stood behind the barrier holding a treat and called the dog’s name in a calm, flat voice. In another set of trials, the experimenter enthusiastically waved the treat in the air and used an urgent, excited voice. (See YouTube video at https://youtu.be/j6bfo5IlCEY – the video has been protected and so I’m unable to link it directly to this blog post).

The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, ranging in age from an eight-month-old Jack Russell terrier named Enzo to an 11-year-old Vizsla named Sienna. They also tested 76 assistance dogs at Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California, a non-profit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

The researchers studied video recordings of each dog and estimated their baseline temperament in terms of tail wags per minute. “The service dogs were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction, whereas the pet dogs tended to be more excitable and high-strung,” Bray said.

Both groups of dogs were able to solve the puzzle. But the optimal amount of stress and stimulation depended on each dog’s disposition.

For the dogs that were naturally calm and laid-back — measured by how quickly they tended to wag their tails — increasing the level of excitement and urgency boosted their ability to stay on task and get the treat.

But for excitable dogs the pattern was reversed. Increasing the level of stimulation only made them take longer.

In one high-arousal trial, a two-year-old spaniel named Charlie Brown lost it and shut down, barking and zipping around crazily until she almost ran out of time.

“In the first five trials she did fine and solved the puzzle quickly with no problems,” Bray said. “Then when the high-arousal trials started she choked. She just couldn’t figure it out.”

“Adding more excitement pushed the pet dogs over the edge and impaired their ability to perform at their peak,” Bray said.

The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service dog training programs, for example.

Source:  Duke University media release

Understanding what is higher value

Researchers have now proven what dog trainers have known for some time: dogs have a sense of quality when it comes to treats and they will seek out the higher value ones.

Kristina Pattison and Thomas Zentall of the University of Kentucky tested the principle by feeding baby carrots and string cheese to ten dogs of various breeds

Dog eating cheeseThe research was conducted on dogs that would willingly eat cheese and baby carrots when offered, but showed a preference for the cheese. However, when given a choice between one slice of cheese, or the cheese together with a piece of carrot, nine of the ten dogs chose the cheese alone. That is, they chose less food over more food.

People, for instance, tend to place greater value on a set of six baseball cards that are in perfect condition, than on the same set of six perfect cards together with three more cards in fair condition.

In cases where rapid decisions must be made, quick solution-driven heuristics such as the “less is more” effect may come in handy. For instance, it is helpful when members of the same species, such as a pack of dogs, feed together. The one that hesitates may lose food to faster-choosing competitors.

But the fact that one in ten dogs did choose the cheese-and-carrot combination suggests that levels of motivation may play a role in this effect. The outlier dog, for instance, had a history of living in shelters and fending for himself.

Source:  Springer media release

A dog-designed robot?

A very different type of research article has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.  This study found that dogs react sociably to robots that behave socially towards them, even if the devices look nothing like a human.

What?  Yes – that’s right.  A research team led by Gabriella Lakatos of the Hungarian Academy of Science and Eötvös Loránd University tested the reactions of 41 dogs with a PeopleBot robot.  The robot had two arms and four-fingered hands, resembling a piece of gym equipment with a white gloved hand attached to it.

One set of dogs in the ‘asocial group’ first observed an interaction between two humans (the owner and the human experimenter) and then observed an ‘asocial’ interaction between the owner and the robot. Another set of dogs watched an interaction between the owner and the human experimenter followed by observing a ‘social’ interaction between the owner and the robot.

A dog and the PeopleBot robot

A dog and the PeopleBot robot

These interactions were followed by sessions in which either the human experimenter or the robot pointed out the location of hidden food.

The dogs spent more time near the robot or gazing at its head when the PeopleBot behaved socially.

“Roboticists who design interactive robots should look into the sociality and behavior of their designs, even if they do not embody human-like characteristics,” Lakatos advises.

Source:  Springer media release

Your dog understands ‘Just Do It’

New research helps to confirm the cognitive abilities of our dogs.

Claudia Fugazza and Adám Miklósi, from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that dogs can learn, retain and replay actions taught by humans after a short delay.   Because the dogs were able to undertake the actions after a delay (during which they were purposely distracted), the research proves that dogs have an ability to ‘encode’ and ‘recall.’

photo courtesy of Springer Select

photo courtesy of Springer Select

The study involved eight adult pet dogs who were trained by their owners with the ‘Do as I do’ method and then made to wait for short intervals (5-30 seconds) before they were allowed to copy the observed human action, for example walk around a bucket or ring a bell.

The researchers observed whether the dogs were able to imitate human actions after delays ranging from 40 seconds to 10 minutes, during which time the dogs were distracted by being encouraged to take part in other activities. The researchers were looking for evidence of the dogs’ ability to encode and recall the demonstrated action after an interval.

The tests show that dogs are able to reproduce familiar actions and novel actions after different delays ̶ familiar actions after intervals as long as ten minutes; novel tasks after a delay of one minute. This ability was seen in different conditions, even if they were distracted by different activities during the interval.

Because dogs were able to reproduce the novel actions after a delay and without earlier practice, the researchers believe that dogs have a specific type of long-term memory capability – called ‘declarative memory.’    These are memories involving facts or knowledge which can be consciously recalled.

This study is published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Source:  Springer Select media statement