Olive is one of the dogs who participated in the research (photo by Diana Tyszko)

  • Dogs do not interpret what they are shown as “teaching”
  • Dogs are selective when copying humans
  • How we train them may not be helpful

Doggone confusion: It's us, not them

By Peter Boisseau
The Freelance Bureau

Ever try to teach your dog something, but they just can’t seem to get it? Well, it turns out our dogs really want to learn, but they get confused and distracted by the way we try to “teach” them.

Ongoing research is shedding some light on what goes on inside a dog’s head when humans are trying to train them.

Among their findings:

  • Dogs learn, and look to us for direction, but often get confused because the way we “teach” them is not helpful.
  • Dogs are less prone to “gravity bias” – the belief that objects always land directly beneath where they are dropped. Gravity bias often stumps human infants and monkeys.
“People want to know how their dog thinks. Understanding how they learn from us could help us train them better,” says Daphna Buchsbaum, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Toronto leading the dog cognition studies.

“The dog wants to listen and learn, but it doesn’t understand that it’s being taught. They are paying attention, but their interpretation is not the same as what you are trying to communicate.”

High hopes

The researchers had high hopes dogs would be one of the few animal species that – like older human babies – are aware of when they are being “taught” something. The study, however, seems to prove otherwise.

The dogs were shown a sequence of events – such as spinning a dial and pushing a button – that would produce a treat from a box. The dogs tended to copy the second action they saw and ignore the first, especially when they figured out the box would still produce a treat if they just followed one action instead of both.

This experiment showed the dogs were not interpreting the demonstration they were being shown as a “teaching” moment in the same way that a child does.

“It shows selectivity in their copying, whereas a three-to-five-year-old child would copy both actions exactly,” said Emma Tecwyn, a postdoctoral fellow working on the study.

Make up your mind hooman!

Even using teaching cues they thought would be helpful -- such as saying: “Hey boy, look here!” -- actually distracted the dogs into maintaining eye contact, rather than watching what the person was doing.

The dog cognition study on social reasoning was a follow up to earlier research that suggested older human babies are sensitive to being taught, but monkeys are not. Dogs were the ideal subject for further study because of their thousands of years of close relationships with humans.

Researchers have long argued about whether the ability to discern that they are being taught is innate to humans and other animals. There is little evidence that animals in the wild, for example, are “taught” by their parents: they simply learn through observation, trial and error.

But their long association with their human companions have made dogs uniquely sensitive to cues thought to be associated with teaching, such as sharing, pointing and directing their attention to certain actions.

Don't get fooled

While dogs may not be sensitive to being taught the same way as human babies, a second study showed they don't have the same gravity bias that often fools children and monkeys.

The study explored if dogs – unlike infant children and monkeys – can locate an object that is dropped but does not fall straight down because it is directed somewhere else by a barrier, like a shelf or a curved tube.

“Gravity bias” makes children and monkeys look for the object on the ground directly beneath where it was dropped. "Dogs do not appear to have this gravity bias,” says Tecwyn. “They learn how to solve the task.”

©2017 Peter Boisseau

Our best friends are always surprising us and the more we learn about them the more we realize how often we surprise them as well. It’s also interesting to see what is being revealed (see link below) about how dogs learn to manipulate us, kind of like the tail wagging the…well, you get the point. - Ed

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Canine Cognition Lab -- University of Toronto

Dogs like soft rock and raggae -- Digital Music News

Dogs and deception  -- CBC

Your dog uses facial expressions to get your attention -- Live Science

Dogs use 19 signs and gestures -- National Geographic


Understanding how to teach dogs -- U of T Arts and Science 

How Dogs Learn -- U of T News