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What Were They Thinking? More Than We Knew.

Most dogs infer that Guinness, a border collie, uses her paw to trigger a treat because her mouth is busy with a ball. They will use their mouths on the bar unless she demonstrates without a ball, after which most will use their paws.
Most dogs infer that Guinness, a border collie, uses her paw to trigger a treat because her mouth is busy with a ball. They will use their mouths on the bar unless she demonstrates without a ball, after which most will use their paws. (Photo courtesy of Freiderike Range)

"Do they use the same cognitive process as the infant? Or is it something different?" Range said. "We have no way of knowing that right now."

The findings stunned many researchers.

"What's surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans," said Brian Hare, who studies dogs at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought."

The experiment suggests that dogs can put themselves inside the head of another dog -- and perhaps people -- to make relatively complex decisions.

"This suggests they can actually think about your intention -- they can look for explanations of your behavior and make inferences about what you are thinking," Hare said.

Others go even further, suggesting the findings indicate that dogs have a sense of awareness.

"It really shows a higher level of consciousness," said Stanley Coren at the University of British Columbia, who studies how dogs think. "This takes a real degree of consciousness."

Others were more skeptical, saying it's too far a leap to conclude from the study that dogs possess conscious awareness.

"It's so easy for the human mind to look at a dog doing something like this and force our human way of thinking about it on the dog," said Daniel J. Povinelli, a cognitive scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "This ability might happen automatically without any conscious reflection on the dog's part."

The findings could simply be yet another example of the well-documented ability of dogs to interpret subtle physical cues that stem from their long, close relationship with humans, several researchers said.

"Dogs are really keen observers of the world around them," said Bruce Blumberg, who teaches classes on dog behavior at Harvard University. "They use simple but reliable rules that capture just enough of a problem to be able to just do better than guessing. This may just be another example of that."

Regardless of the interpretation, the research reflects a renewed interest in dogs.

"There's been an extraordinary explosion in research on dogs," said Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "What we're seeing really for the first time is incredibly serious and important work on dog behavior and dog genetics. The really important work will be when the canine cognitive work meets the canine genome work. It's going to give us information about where these capabilities come from."


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