Dogs Have Deeper Level of Understanding Than Previously Thought, New Study Suggests

Recent study shows dogs may have a level of understanding we didn't know existed in non-primate species.

Before we dive into the specifics of the study, there are a couple of concepts that we need to understand.

Goal-directed actions

Goal-directed actions simply means your actions are meant to accomplish something. You're hungry and so you eat, or you want to stop a baby from crying and so you console it. Noticing and understanding other's actions as goal-directed is fundamental to cognitive and social development in human infants. It is this understanding that is a precondition for understanding intentional actions, attributing mental states, and is believed to be a precursor to later theory of mind development (deficits in theory of mind development have been linked to disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD).


Habituation is a form of nonassociative learning in which response to a stimulus is decreased after repeated exposure because the mind perceives the stimulus as harmless and unchanging. A good example of this is sleeping better in a hotel room on the second night because you have gotten used to the noises and conditions of the room.

Dishabituation is the return of a response (after habituation) due to a new stimulus being introduced. So if you're in the same hotel room and a new stimulus is introduced, such as a car backfiring outside of your window, the initial response of your body, restlessness, might return. Scientists use habituation-dishabituation by measuring responses each time a new stimulus is introduced.

Ok, now that we're past that, let's have a look at the study!


  • 52 dog-owner pairs (22 male dogs, 30 female, and ages ranged from 1 to 10 years)
  • All dogs lived within a human household and had little or no training.
  • Each were assigned to one of two groups: Animate or Inanimate.
  • Two objects used, a globe and a watering can. A sample of 7 dogs were shown both and no preference for either was observed.
  • Initial habituation phase in which they interacted always with one of the two objects
  • Following habituation, two sets of 3 trials were presented:
    • new side trials (in which the dog interacted with the same object as in the habituation trial but placed in a novel location)
    • new goal trials (in which the dog interacted with the other object placed in the old location)

The dogs were allowed to explore an empty room while the owner was informed about what to do. The owner would then walk into the room positioned behind the dog without interaction (the dog was on a leash). An observer recorded the time dogs spent looking at, or not at, an object. For the group Animate, the owner would interact with an object, and for Inanimate the object was controlled using a black box from behind a curtain (so the owner was hidden). After it was determined a dog had stopped responding (habituation), they would move the object and measure the length of the dog's gaze. Finally, they would interact with a new object and again measure responses.


  • The dogs looked for a longer period of time at the objects their owner had interacted with
  • The results stayed the same when they moved the object and when they switched objects
  • There was no preference for either object when the black box was used

They may have believed there was a reason why their owner was messing with the object and attributed value to it simply because their owner did! This is a similar response to human infants, and the very first evidence that a non-primate species can perceive our actions as goal-directed! Dogs may just have a level of understanding that we didn't even know was possible in other species!

These results also beg the question: What else do they understand?..




Marshall-Pescini S, Ceretta M, Prato-Previde E (2014) Do Domestic Dogs Understand Human Actions as Goal-Directed? PLoS ONE 9(9): e106530. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106530

R. Peter Hobson and Anthony Lee (1999). Imitation and Identification in Autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, pp 649-659.

Cacioppo J, Freberg L (2013). Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning pp 282-283.

PLOS ONE. (2014, September 17). Dogs respond to goal-directed behavior at similar level to infants. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2014 from

Habituation. (2014, August 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:27, September 19, 2014, from

Theory of mind. (2014, September 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:06, September 19, 2014, from

Image credit:

Rio the Black Mixed-Breed Dog with Newspaper by Found Animals Foundation and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


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