Yesterday, I introduced a study1 that was recently published in PLoS ONE. Today, let’s look at the results and what they mean for dogs and people.

When the researchers analyzed the videos of the dogs under all the varying conditions, they found that when left to their own devices, 73 percent of the dogs chose the larger amount of food more often and that as time went on, individual dogs that repeated this test with no human interaction learned to pick the larger portion size with even greater frequency.

So, what types of cues could dogs get from a person that would cause them to go against the innate and infinitely reasonable tendency to pick the larger portion of food? The results of this study showed that a person could influence the dogs’ decisions (making them pick the smaller of the two portions) when they either handled the food (picking it up and moving it towards their own mouth), or handled the food and looked and talked to the dogs while doing so (categories 4 and 5 mentioned yesterday). None of the other scenarios resulted in a significant change in the dogs’ behavior.

This shows that a social species (dogs) will respond to some cues from another social species (people) even when what they are being "told" goes against their natural instincts — basically we can influence our canine companions to make "bad" decisions with our body language and voices.

This brings to mind the quote by Spiderman (and more reputable philosophers), "With great power comes great responsibility." It feels to me that the people involved in this study were betraying the dogs’ sense of trust (for the good cause of scientific research in this case). I can just imagine what the dogs were thinking (I admit it, I’m anthropomorphizing): "Really? This one? I don’t know … it looks smaller to me. You’re sure? Okay, if you say so. Gulp."

I remember watching a documentary on canine and human evolution a while back, in which a scientist hypothesized that humans and dogs essentially co-evolved after we started living together. He pointed to changes in both species’ brains that occurred after this time, making us work most efficiently as a team. People specialized in reasoning, dogs in sensing the world around them, and together we made (and still make) a pretty impressive team.

To me, this new research adds support to this theory. Given the right cues, dogs will essentially defer to us when it comes to making decisions despite pretty solid evidence that another option is in their best interest. It’s a two way street though. I’ve learned to respect my dogs’ superior senses of smell and hearing. When they tell me that there is something that I should be paying attention to in our environment, I go on high alert — even if I don’t have the foggiest idea what they smell or hear.

It could be that dogs are more than just our best friends. Maybe they are, in part, what made us modern humans.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

1 Marshall-Pescini S, Passalacqua C, Miletto Petrazzini ME, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E (2012) Do Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) Make Counterproductive Choices Because They Are Sensitive to Human Ostensive Cues? PLoS ONE 7(4):e35437.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035437

Image: Alexander Jamieson, Plate VII (Canes Venatici constellation, recolored), 1822 / via United States Naval Observatory Library