Why Your Dog Might Think You’re a Bonehead

Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. I’m Karen Hopkin.

Ever get the feeling that your cat is judging you? 

[Cat meows]

Hopkin: Well, you’re in for a surprise. Because it’s actually your pooch who might be viewing you with a critical eye. 

[Dog barking in experiment]

Hopkin: That’s according to a study that shows that dogs can assess human aptitude…and will look toward people who seem to know what they’re doing. The work appears in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Hitomi Chijiiwa: Our aim was to test whether dogs are sensitive to humans’ competence levels. And whether they evaluate humans on this trait.

Hopkin: Hitomi Chijiiwa is an assistant professor at Osaka University. If critiquing people’s proficiency seems an odd job for a pup, it may not be all that far fetched. Canines have spent more than 10,000 years by our sides.

Chijiiwa: [So] Dogs are highly sensitive to human behavior.

Hopkin: And they pay particular attention to things like how cooperative we are.

Chijiiwa: For example, our previous study showed that dogs avoid people who refuse to help their owner.

Hopkin: So Chijiiwa and her colleagues got to wondering whether dogs might also rate us in terms of our skillfulness. Particularly if those skills might come in handy for our four-footed little friends. So they set up a simple experiment.

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.

[Sound from experiment]

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.

Hopkin: (Although one little cutie with a bow on her head did bark at all the containers, regardless of their contents.)

[Audio of dog barking through experiment]

Hopkin: So, why would females be more censorious observers of people’s performances than males?

Chijiiwa: Female superiority in the social cognitive domain has been reported across many mammalian species including humans.

Hopkin: In other words, in many cognitive studies, furry females seem to show a higher social IQ than mammalian males. And sex differences have been seen in other pup studies.

Chijiiwa: For example, females look at their owners more frequently and longer than males when facing unsolvable task. [And] Female dogs solve significantly more tasks than males in social learning task.

Hopkin: So…next time Fifi looks at you with those puppy dog eyes…you might be thinking, what a good dog! But she might be thinking, Meh, you could do better.

For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Karen Hopkin.

[Dog barking]

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