Like humans, dogs know when they don’t know enough to make a decision

JENA, Germany — Your dog may be more of a super sleuth than you realize. A new study finds that dogs will seek more information if they know they don’t have enough facts to make a decision, much like humans and chimpanzees.

This ability, according to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, is called a “metacognitive” trait.

For the study, researchers sought to determine whether dogs are aware of information they’ve learned and when they need to know more before taking action. They recruited 48 dogs from a spectrum of ages, young and old, who had received typical obedience training. The authors designed a test for the dogs that required them to find a reward — a treat or a toy — hidden behind one of two v-shaped fences. Some dogs were allowed to see where the reward was hidden, while others were not.

The researchers recorded how often the dogs looked between the gaps in the fences before deciding which one had the reward they desired. They wanted to see if the dogs would check before making a decision. They found that most of the dogs that hadn’t seen where the reward was placed checked both fences more frequently than those that were shown the location before choosing one over the other.

In the end, 94 percent of the dogs that saw the placement of the reward selected the correct fence, while 57 percent that did not see the placement still chose correctly.

“These results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden,” explains study co-author Julia Belger in a media release. “The fact that dogs checked more when they had no knowledge of the reward’s location could suggest that dogs show metacognitive abilities, as they meet one of the assumptions of knowing about knowing.”

“For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case our experiment was based on a ‘checking’ action relying on sight – but the dogs probably also used their sense of smell when checking through the gap. We know that smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it,” says lead researcher Juliane Bräuer. “In future, we would like to develop an experiment investigating under what circumstances dogs decide to use their sense of smell versus sight. This may give us additional insights into their information seeking abilities.”

Interestingly, the researchers also showed that dogs tended to check more frequently for the toy than the food, indicating there was a greater value placed on the toy and thus the pets do show a degree of flexibility in the way they make decisions. They also found that even when dogs saw where a reward was placed, they still typically checked the incorrect fence to be sure — indicating they likely simply can’t ignore their inhibitions like humans could, even when they know what’s right and wrong.

The study was published November 12, 2018 in the journal Learning and Behavior.

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