Dogs can distinguish between deliberate acts and accidents, researchers say

Psychology researchers from Germany carried out a series of tests on 51 dogs

Holly Bancroft
Thursday 02 September 2021 20:11 BST
<p>Woman during pandemic walk with her dog</p>

Woman during pandemic walk with her dog

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Dogs can tell whether their owners do something deliberately or by accident, scientists have said.

Psychology researchers from Germany carried out a series of tests on 51 dogs to see if they could tell the difference between intentional and unintentional human actions.

They discovered that dogs react differently, by lying down and stopping their tails from wagging, when they think their owner has purposefully withheld a treat.

The pets, which were of varying breeds and ages, were taken into a quiet room one by one without their owners.

Female scientists helping to run the trial then led the dogs in front of a see-through plastic panel, that had a 15 cm-wide gap in the middle for the

The woman then sat on the other side of the transparent wall and tried to pass rewards through the gap.

For either intentional or unintentional reasons, she ended up not giving any rewards to the chosen dog.

In some instances, the experimenter would move a treat towards the gap in the partition but then pull it away in a fast motion, while exclaiming “ha-ha!”. She would then place it, out of the dog’s reach, in front of her on the floor.

In other instances, instead of intentionally pulling the treat away, the experimenter would “accidentally” drop it on the ground and shout “oops!”.

Scientists also tested the dogs by shutting the gap in the transparent wall and getting the experimenters to gesture as if they were passing the treat through. They would then get stuck and exclaim “oh” and place the treat in front of her again.

Dogs waited longer to approach the treats when the person carrying out the experiment had withheld them intentionally compared to when they did so unintentionally.

When the dog thought the person was withholding the treat on purpose, it would more often sit or lie down and stop wagging its tail.

However, when the dog though the person was just being clumsy and had accidentally withheld the treat, it was more likely to stand up and wag its tail.

Scientists carrying out the study thought that the dogs sat or lay down as an act of appeasement to try and calm their owners.

Similarly stopping or slowing down tail movement was interpreted as a signal for attentiveness and a way for the dogs to make sense of a confusing situation.

The authors from the University of Gottingen concluded: “Dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional.

“They waited significantly longer before approaching a reward that the experimenter had withheld intentionally than a reward that had not been administered due to human clumsiness or a physical obstacle

“Thus, dogs were able to distinguish between the experimenter’s intentional and unintentional actions.”

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