Do dogs provide information helpfully?

Patrizia Piotti, Juliane Kaminski

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Abstract

Dogs are particularly skilful during communicative interactions with humans. Dogs’ abilities to use human communicative cues in cooperative contexts outcompete those of other species, and might be the result of selection pressures during domestication. Dogs also produce signals to direct the attention of humans towards outside entities, a behaviour often referred to as showing behaviour. This showing behaviour in dogs is thought to be something dogs use intentionally and referentially. However, there is currently no evidence that dogs communicate helpfully, i.e. to inform an ignorant human about a target that is of interest to the human but not to the dog. Communicating with a helpful motive is particularly interesting because it might suggest that dogs understand the human’s goals and need for information. In study 1, we assessed whether dogs would abandon an object that they find interesting in favour of an object useful for their human partner, a random novel distractor, or an empty container. Results showed that it was mainly self-interest that was driving the dogs’ behaviour. The dogs mainly directed their behaviour towards the object they had an interest in, but dogs were more persistent when showing the object relevant to the human, suggesting that to some extent they took the humans interest into account. Another possibility is that dogs’ behaviour was driven by an egocentric motivation to interact with novel targets and that the dogs’ neophila might have masked their helpful tendencies. Therefore, in study 2 the dogs had initial access to both objects, and were expected to indicate only one (relevant or distractor). The human partner interacted with the dog using vocal communication in half of the trials, and remaining silent in the other half. Dogs from both experimental groups, i.e. indicating the relevant object or indicating the distractor, established joint attention with the human. However, the human’s vocal communication and the presence of the object relevant to the human increased the persistency of showing, supporting the hypothesis that the dogs understood the objects’ relevance to the human. We propose two non-exclusive explanations. These results might suggest that informative motives could possibly underlie dogs’ showing. It is also possible that dogs might have indicated the location of the hidden object because they recognised it as the target of the human’s search. This would be consistent with taking into account the objects’ relevance, without necessarily implying that the dogs understood the human’s state of knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0159797
JournalPLoS One
Volume11
Issue number8
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2016

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