Pet dogs may understand a human’s point of view, according to new research which suggests they are more likely to steal food when they think that nobody can see them.
When a human forbids a dog from taking food, the animal is four times more likely to disobey them in a dark room than a lit room – suggesting they take into account what the human can or cannot see – according to research published in the journal Animal Cognition by Dr Juliane Kaminski from the University of Portsmouth.
Dr Kaminski said: "That's incredible because it implies dogs understand the human can't see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective."
She said that although many dog owners think that their pets are clever and understand humans, this had not yet previously been tested by science.
Dr Kaminski said: "Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that's us thinking, not them.
"These results suggest humans might be right, where dogs are concerned, but we still can't be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others' minds. It has always been assumed only humans had this ability."
The research, published in the journal Animal Cognition and funded by the Max Planck Society, involved a series of experiments in varied light conditions.
In each test, a dog was forbidden by a human from taking the food. When the room was dark, the dogs took more food and took it more quickly than when the room was lit.
The tests were complex and involved many variables to rule out that dogs were basing their decisions on simple associative rules, for example, that dark means food.
Dr Kaminski said that there was no evidence on how well dogs could see in the dark, but the results of her research showed that dogs could differentiate between light and dark.
In total, 42 female and 42 male domestic dogs aged one year or older took part in the tests.
They were chosen only if they were comfortable without their owners in the room, even in complete darkness, and if they were interested in food.
Dr Kaminski said: "The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it's safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human's perspective."
She explained that previous studies have shown chimpanzees have a sophisticated understanding and seem to know when someone else can or cannot see them and can also remember what others have seen in the past.
She added that more research was needed to understand what was influencing the behaviour of dogs because their understanding was limited to the "here and now".