Dogs May Sense Human Intention!

New research suggests canines can distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions in people.


Pet, Study, Science
Sweet Cavapoo dog listening attentively

(Steven B Gold /

Dogs have long been called man’s best friend and for good reason. They give affection and show loyalty to their human owners. People in return provide for and love their dogs, creating a symbiotic relationship between human and canine. Now new research suggests that this relationship goes much deeper than previously thought. 

A new theory of mind study involving dogs
A new “‘theory of mind” study published in the nature journal, Scientific Reports,  suggests that canines are able to distinguish between intentional and unintentional actions in the humans they interact with. 

According to news outlet the Guardian, the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, is based on the ‘theory of mind’ (TOM). This refers to the ability to understand the desires, intentions and beliefs of others. TOM research investigates how we  ascribe mental states to others, and how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other people. It has been debated if animals, like chimpanzees,  humankind’s closest relatives, possess this theory of mind. 

The researchers found that canines do possess at least some elements of this capability,  and suggest that dogs can recognize what they call “intent-in-action”,  and can understand a human’s psychological state of intent. 

Testing understanding of the intentions of humans in dogs
In the study, researchers passed treats to a dog through a gap in a screen under three different conditions. In the first condition the human tried to give the dog a treat, clumsily dropped the treat and said “oops!” The second condition researchers also tried to offer a treat, but the gap was sealed and so couldn’t pass the treat along. The third condition had the same offer of the treat, but the researcher quickly retrieved the treat and said “Ha ha!” In the experiment, the dogs are met with three situations in which they don’t receive a treat for some reason. 

The researchers noted that the dogs waited longer before walking around the screen to get the treat directly from the researcher when the treat was withdrawn. Additionally, they were more likely to stop wagging their tails and to lie down. 

The authors discuss that this points to the ability of dogs to understand intent, as they understood that when the treat was pulled away it was intentional and their subjects felt a degree of distance due to the  “unwillingness” of the researcher. 

An earlier, 2004 study published in the  Developmental Science journal, also showed this behavior in chimpanzees. When food was kept from chimpanzees due to a blockage or a clumsy researcher,  the primates remained patient as they waited for food. Only when researchers withheld the food “intentionally”, did the chimpanzees begin to exhibit impatient behaviors like banging on their chests. 

It is not fully apparent if all of the canine reactions can be attributed to intent-in-action , and researchers note that there is more to explore. They want to check for outlying factors that could have influenced the dogs’ behaviors. These include factors like the vocal cues of the person offering the treat, or the possibility that the dog is actually learning to stay away from the food for good reason when it is presented and then withheld. 

Whether dogs truly understand human intent or not, dog’s will remain our loving companions. As more research is done into the bond between humans and dogs, however, more reasons for our bond will become clearer. 

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