Dogs can know when they don't know

Researchers have shown that dogs possess some 'meta-cognitive' abilities specifically, they are aware of when they do not have enough information to solve a problem and will actively seek more information.



Researchers at the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have shown that dogs possess some "meta-cognitive" abilities per se, they are aware of when they do not have enough information to solve a problem and will actively seek more information, similarly to primates. To investigate this, the researchers created a test in which dogs had to find a reward, like a toy or food, behind one of two fences. They found that the dogs looked for additional information significantly more often when they had not seen where the reward was hidden.


In the field of comparative psychology, researchers study animals in order to learn about the evolution of various traits and what this can tell us about ourselves. At the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, project leader Juliane Bräuer studies dogs to make these comparisons. In a recent study published in the journal Learning & Behavior, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, explore whether dogs have metacognitive abilities, sometimes described as the ability to "know what one knows", and in particular whether they are aware of what information they have learned and whether they need more information.


To test this, the researchers designed an apparatus involving two V-shaped fences. A reward, either food or a toy, would be placed by one researcher behind one of the two fences while another researcher held the dog. In some cases, the dog could see where the reward was placed, while in others the dog could not. The researchers then analyzed how frequently the dogs looked through a gap in the fence before choosing an option. The question was whether, like chimps and humans, the dog would "check" through the gap when he or she had not seen where the reward was placed.


This would indicate that the dog was aware that he or she did not know where the reward was, a meta-cognitive ability, and would try to get more information before choosing a fence

Some researchers argue that some animals, such as dogs, may only look for extra information when searching as a routinized, instinctual behavior, and not as a result of a metacognitive process. To control for this, they tested whether dogs show the so-called "passport effect," originally described by researcher Joseph Call.


When humans are looking for something very important, for example, a passport, they will engage in more active searching and will check for it more often than if they are looking for something less important or generic. Great apes display this same behavior, as they will search more for a high-value food.


Thus, this team varied whether the dogs were looking for high- or low-value food, in order to test whether dogs also had the searching flexibility displayed in the passport effect. In another variation, they tested whether it made a difference to the dog when they had to search for a toy or for food.


The dogs "checked" more often when they did not know where the reward was hidden

The researchers found that the dogs did check significantly more often for the reward when they had not seen where it was placed.


The results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden

The results did not allow the researchers to say definitively whether dogs possess meta-cognition, although they displayed some evidence for it. For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case, the 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. Smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it.


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