Domestic dogs are very different from their wolf ancestors in their bodies and their behaviour. They’re more docile for a start. But man’s best friend has also evolved a curious sensitivity to our communication signals – a mental ability that sets them apart from wolves and that parallels the behaviour of human infants. Dogs and infants are even prone to making the same mistakes of perception.
Like infants less than a year old, dogs fail at a seemingly easy exercise called the “object permanence task”. It goes like this: if you hide an object somewhere(say a ball under a cup) and let the baby retrieve it a few times, they will continue to search for it there even if you hide it somewhere else (say behind the sofa) and even if you do so in front of their eyes. Piaget, the legendary psychologist who discovered this behaviour, thought that it reflected a wildly different way of seeing the world.
More recently, Jozsef Topal suggested that it’s the influence of the adult experimenter that’s the key. By repeatedly pointing at the ball in the first hiding place, the adult enshrines a generalised rule in the infant’s mind. And infants, being programmed to learn from communicative signals, come to believe the adult’s instructions over the evidence of their own eyes (some people apparently never grow out of this, but I digress). Topal demonstrated this by showing that infants were much better at the task if the experimenters avoided social cues like calling the child’s name or eye contact.
And the same is true for domestic dogs. Topal tested a dozen adult dogs with a version of the hidden-object challenge, concealing toy behind one of two possible screens. If he called to the dogs by name, made eye contact and waved, the animals made the same errors that infants make on 75% of the trials. Without any of these signals, their scores improved and they only failed to realise the ball’s new location on 39% of the trials. Their error rate dropped even lower in completely non-social situations, where the ball was moved by pulling on a transparent string.
These results suggest that dogs and infant share a social mindset where certain cues prepare them to learn from humans. It’s not the case that the gestures and facial signs were just distracting for that would lead the animals or infants to search both hiding places equally – instead, they both preferred the one that the object was initially hidden behind.
Dogs, it seems, have a particular breed of social smarts even as inexperienced puppies and some scientists have suggested that these skills are adaptations that have developed over the last 10,000 years to allow dogs to better interact with their two-legged partners.