Stealing In The Dark: What Dogs Do When We Aren’t Watching

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

We often assigned human thoughts, intentions, and feelings to our pets, but we rarely have the scientific evidence to back up the idea that they´re just like us.

However, a new study from a group of researchers based at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany has found that dogs will steal food when they think they aren´t being seen, suggesting that dogs understand our point-of-view.

“Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things,” said co-author Juliane Kaminski, currently with the University of Portsmouth´s Department of Psychology. “We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that´s us thinking, not them.”

“These results suggest humans might be right, where dogs are concerned, but we still can´t be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others´ minds. It has always been assumed only humans had this ability,” Kaminski said in a statement.

According to the team´s report, which was just published in the journal Animal Cognition, when a human has forbidden a dog from taking food, dogs are four times more likely to steal that food in a darkened room, suggesting they are aware that humans cannot see them.

To reach their conclusion, the team ran a series of experiments in a wide range of light conditions. A total of 84 domestic dogs, 42 female and 42 male, that were at least one year old, participated in the tests. They were only selected if they were comfortable in complete darkness, without their owners in the room, and if they were interested in food.

“Some dogs are more interested in by food than others,” Kaminski noted.

In each experiment, a dog was prohibited by a human tester from taking a food sample. In the dark, the dogs not only tended to take more food, but they also took it more readily than when the room was lit.

“That´s incredible because it implies dogs understand the human can´t see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective,” Kaminski said. “The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it´s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human´s perspective.”

To eliminate any associations between light levels and food availability, the tests were designed to be complex and involved many different variables. While there is no hard evidence indicating how well dogs can see in the dark, the results of this study show that dogs can at least differentiate between light and dark conditions.

Previous research has suggested that chimpanzees know when someone can´t see them and can also remember what observers have seen them do in the past. While it´s unknown if dogs have this same level of cognition, other dog studies have found that they use a human´s eyes when deciding how to behave, and that they cooperate better with more attentive humans.

Kaminski suggested that her team´s latest study could be useful for dog owners, trainers, and first responders who may work alongside man´s best friend.