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Research indicates dogs have some ability to read minds

Reprinted from the University of Canterbury's "Chronicle" - 16/01/08

Owners who think their beloved pooch can read their mind may be right.

Canterbury University psychology student Michelle Maginnity has just completed a masters research project looking at whether the domestic dog has a theory of mind that is, whether they can think about the thoughts and feelings of self and others.

She said after carrying out a range of experiments which tested the cognitive skills of dogs, she believed they were not only sensitive to human cues, but also had the ability to think about what their human companions may be thinking.

"So, in a way, dogs may be able to read minds," she said.

Psychology student Michelle Maginnity with four-legged friend, Boss
Psychology student Michelle Maginnity with four-legged friend, Boss
Click here to view a larger version

Michelle's research involved testing the social-cognitive skills of 16 dogs, some pure bred and others of mixed breed, in a food-finding task. In four different experiments the dogs had to decide where the food was hidden by following cues from people who either did or didn't know where the food was.

Michelle said a range of scenarios were tested. For example, one person watched food being hidden while the other covered their eyes, and in each test the dogs showed a preference for the person who they believed knew where the food was.

"What this showed was that the dogs were able to take the perspective of the humans involved in the experiment, and attribute states of knowledge to those people," Michelle said.

"This means dogs may possess a functional theory of mind."

Michelle said research on the social cognition skills of animals had largely focused on chimpanzees and other primates, with relatively inconclusive results. However, she believed dogs were a more appropriate species to look at.

"Domestic dogs have evolved from wolves, which are social pack animals. It would therefore be advantageous to them to be able to think about what other pack members are thinking, especially when taking part in co-operative hunting. In that situation it also helps if they're able to think about what their prey may be thinking," she said.

"Another important factor is that dogs have evolved alongside humans and are likely to have become attuned to human behaviour and social cues to help in their interactions with people."

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