Like Babies, Dogs Perceive Goal-directed Behavior

Like Babies Dogs Perceive Goal-directed Behavior

Like Babies Dogs Perceive Goal-directed BehaviorNew study on canines’ perception of goal-orientated behavior has studied how dogs take longer to look at new objects than people who are interacting with known objects that have been moved to a different location, which suggests canine’s goal-directed behavior. The study by Sarah Marshall-Pescini from University of Milan in Italy and her colleagues was published in PLOS ONE journal, and their outline is below.

As children develop socially and mentally, study analysis on ScienceDaily says, they learn to pay attention to peoples’ actions relevant to them, such as actions toward a goal, or goal-directed behavior. Scientists suggest that nonhuman primates may have the ability to perceive goal-directed behavior, and dogs, which may be particularly sensitive to human communication cues, may also have the same ability.

In the new cynology study, researchers have adapted a test used on 5 month-old babies to investigate whether ~50 pet dogs attributed goal-directed actions to a person but not a black box while they were each interacting with another object. After acclimating them to the environmental conditions, the researchers exposed the dogs to two sets of trials, one where the human or the black box interacted with the same object they were acclimated to earlier, placed in a new location, and a second where the human or black box interacted with a new object placed in the same (acclimated) location. A more detailed study explanation by the scientists themselves follows below.

Study of dogs’ ability to perceive goal-directed behavior

Like Babies Dogs Perceive Goal-directed Behavior
Photographic representation of the experimental setup Photo: Marshall-Pescini et al.

According to study analysis and introduction published in PLOS ONE, understanding of other’s actions as goal-directed is considered a fundamental ability underlying cognitive and social development in human infants. A number of previous researchers have performed studies using the habituation-dishabituation paradigm, and the results have shown that the ability to discern intentional relations, in terms of goal-directedness of an action towards an object, appears around 5 months of age. The question of whether non-human species can perceive other’s actions as goal-directed has been more controversial, however, there is mounting evidence that at least some primates species do.

Very recently, domestic dogs have been shown to be particularly sensitive to human communicative cues and more so in cooperative and intentional contexts. Furthermore, they have been shown to imitate selectively. Taken together, these results suggest that dogs may perceive others’ actions as goal-directed, however no study has investigated this issue directly.

In the current study, adopting an infant habituation-dishabituation paradigm, we investigated whether dogs attribute intentions to an animate (a human) but not an inanimate (a black box) agent interacting with an object. Following an habituation phase in which the agent interacted always with one of two objects, two sets of 3 trials were presented: new side trials (in which the agent interacted with the same object as in the habituation trial but placed in a novel location) and new goal trials (in which the agent interacted with the other object placed in the old location). Dogs showed a similar pattern of response to that shown in infants, looking longer in the new goal than new side trials when they saw the human agent interact with the object. No such difference emerging with the inanimate agent (the black box).

Conclusion of the study

Just like babies, dogs looked longer at the person interacting with the new object in the same location rather than the same object moved to a new location. The researchers found no difference between trials with just the blackbox interacting with the acclimated or new object.

These results may provide the first evidence that a nonprimate species may be able to perceive another individual’s actions as goal-directed. The authors suggest that dogs may view the actions of humans — but not of black boxes — as goal-directed, although further studies are needed to clarify whether these results stem from cognitive processes or something else.

Results provide the first evidence that a non-primate species can perceive another individual’s actions as goal-directed. Researchers then proceed to discuss results of this study in terms of the prevailing mentalisitic and non-mentalistic hypotheses regarding goal-attribution in dogs.



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

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