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Researchers: Dogs Evaluate How Competent Humans Are

Provided that a treat is involved. Females pay more attention to competence in humans than males, they say
dachsund dog portrait studio looking up.

At Scientific American’s “60-Second Science” podcast (with transcript), science writer Karen Hopkin interviewed Kyoto University psychologist Hitomi Chijiiwa on her team’s recent finding that female dogs actively evaluate human competence. Because one their previous studies showed that dogs avoid people who refuse to help their human friends, the team decided to also test whether dogs form judgments about people based on their apparent skilfulness or competence:

Chijiiwa: We showed 60 dogs two persons manipulating transparent containers. One person is competent.

Hopkin: That person was able to pop open the top after just a couple of twists.

Chijiiwa: Whereas the other person is incompetent and they failed at this task. Hopkin: That person tried to open the lid, then gave up. The actors repeated the performance on a second container, with the same results: the competent person succeeded, the other, not so much.

Then the researchers handed both actors a third container. In some trials, this container was empty. In others, it contained a treat. And what they found was that female dogs spent more time gazing expectantly at the person who had previously demonstrated container-opening know-how.

Chijiiwa: And they were more likely to approach the competent person.

Hopkin: But only when they thought they might get free food.

Chijiiwa: Dogs in the empty condition showed no preferences.

Karen Hopkin, “Why Your Dog Might Think You’re a Bonehead” at Scientific American (December 16, 2022)

Hopkin naturally wondered why females would be more likely than males to evaluate the performance carefully. Chijiiwa attributes it to better development of social cognition among females. That makes sense if we consider that, in a dog pack, females are less likely to get what they want simply by main force. They might therefore tend to perfect the art of guessing what a dog (or human) of interest is likely to do and adjust their own behavior accordingly.

Here’s the paper’s Abstract:

Dogs are highly sensitive to human behavior, and they evaluate us using both their direct experiences and from a third-party perspective. Dogs pay attention to various aspects of our actions and make judgments about, for example, social vs. selfish acts. However, it is unclear if dogs judge human competence. To investigate this issue, we showed dogs two experimenters manipulating a transparent container: one was good at removing the lid to take an object out of the container (Competent person), whereas the other was unsuccessful at this task (Incompetent person). After demonstrating their actions twice with different containers, both experimenters simultaneously tried to open a third container which contained food (Food condition; 30 dogs) or was empty (Empty condition; 30 dogs). Dogs in the Food condition looked at the Competent person longer than the Incompetent one, and female dogs in particular were more likely to approach the Competent person. In contrast, dogs in the Empty condition showed no preferences. This result suggests that dogs can recognize different competence levels in humans, and that this ability influences their behavior according to the first situation. Our data also indicate that more attention should be given to potential sex differences in dogs’ social evaluation abilities. The paper is open access.

You may also wish to read: Can a dog be bred to be as smart as a human? An enterprising electrical engineer thinks it can be done. The trouble is, we aren’t even sure quite what human consciousness is, so at what would we aim? (Denyse O’Leary)

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Researchers: Dogs Evaluate How Competent Humans Are