Dogs look at a person interacting with a new object longer than a person interacting with a familiar object moved to a different location, suggesting perception of goal-directed behavior, according to a study published September 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Sarah Marshall-Pescini from University of Milan, Italy and colleagues.
As children develop socially and mentally, they learn to pay attention to peoples' actions relevant to them, such as actions toward a goal, or goal-directed behavior. Scientists suggest that nonhuman primates may have the ability to perceive goal-directed behavior, and dogs, which may be particularly sensitive to human communication cues, may also have the same ability. The authors of this study adapted a test used on 5 month-old babies to investigate whether ~50 pet dogs attributed goal-directed actions to a person but not a black box while they were each interacting with another object. After acclimating them to the environmental conditions, the researchers exposed the dogs to two sets of trials, one where the human or the black box interacted with the same object they were acclimated to earlier, placed in a new location, and a second where the human or black box interacted with a new object placed in the same (acclimated) location.
Similar to infants, dogs looked longer at the person interacting with the new object in the same location rather than the same object moved to a new location. The researchers found no difference between trials with just the blackbox interacting with the acclimated or new object. These results may provide the first evidence that a nonprimate species may be able to perceive another individual's actions as goal-directed. The authors suggest that dogs may view the actions of humans -- but not of black boxes -- as goal-directed, although further studies are needed to clarify whether these results stem from cognitive processes or something else.
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