Dr. Juliane Bräuer

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Phone: +49 341 3550-413
Fax: +49 341 3550-119

Behavioural Biology . Cognitive Science

Record vocabulary with over 200 words

The human participant then asked the dog to bring one of the toys to her using the command “bring” – without, however referring specifically to the toy. If the dogs could understand anything about the person’s perspective and what she could see, they would display a preference for the toy behind the transparent barrier, as this was the only one in her field of vision. Therefore, the command could refer only to the toy behind the transparent barrier. If, however, the dog reacted only to the eye as stimulus, it should not show a preference for either of the two toys, and carry each of them to the person with equal frequency, because it would perceive the latter’s eyes in conjunction with both toys.

I know what you know: dogs observe people to put themselves in their position. Zoom Image
I know what you know: dogs observe people to put themselves in their position.

The dogs in fact opted more frequently for the object in front of the transparent barrier. However, it was entirely possible that the dog simply showed a preference for the transparent barrier, for example because the toy looked brighter there or because it had in this way a better view of the human while he carried it. For this reason, the study was supplemented with two further control conditions in which the dog should not have shown any preference for either of the two toys.

In one condition, the person was able to see both objects because she was sitting at the dog’s side; in the other one, she could see neither of them because she was sitting with her back to the set-up. The dogs displayed a certain preference for the transparent barrier when the human was turned away from them; however, their greatest preference was reserved for the case in which the human sat opposite and really saw only the toy behind the transparent barrier. “This result could mean that dogs actually do understand, to a certain extent, what humans can see,” says Juliane Kaminski.

Whether or not dogs make ideal partners for the game “I spy with my little eye” remains unclear. However, there can be no doubt that they possess the basic skills necessary to play it. Bräuer, who came to work with dogs through her research on apes, has been the scientific coordinator of the dog research for two years, and coordinates ongoing projects with Susanne Mauritz. She enables interested dog owners to register their interest in participating in the observational studies through media appeals. “People are happy to come to us because they are curious to know what their dogs can actually do, and because they know that we will take good care of the dogs, and challenge them mentally,” says Mauritz.

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