Dogs may be able to tell when owners are purposely withholding treats: Study

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Dogs may be able to tell when their owners are purposely withholding treats from them, a recent study suggests.

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Research published Tuesday in Scientific Reports indicated that dogs react in different ways depending on whether people withhold food intentionally, or seemingly by accident.

“I have to say I was surprised. I didn’t expect to have this clear a picture,” Julian Bräuer, who leads the team that conducted the study, told NPR.

The study, published by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in the journal Scientific Reports, tested the reactions of 51 dogs when a human attempted to pass a treat through a glass panel.

A dog in Australia. (File photo: Marliese Streefland/Unsplash)
A dog in Australia. (File photo: Marliese Streefland/Unsplash)

When the person dropped the treat, apparently accidentally, most of the dogs would rush around the side of the glass to eat it.

But when the treat was withheld deliberately, the dogs would pause for longer before running to the other side to grab it.

Some of the dogs did not even run around the partition to get the food that was kept from them on purpose.

They instead sat down on their side, perhaps waiting to see if the human would decide to feed them.

Bräuer said that the way the dogs reacted “might really suggest that they are able to understand intention, at least in this simple set-up.”

Similar results have been found in experiments with chimpanzees, according to another one of the researchers.

When food is deliberately withheld from the apes, they will pound on the glass angrily or leave the experiment area.

But when it is dropped, “they will really try to help you to give them the reward, and put their finger through the gap to try to get the reward,” said Britta Schünemann of Harvard University.

However, some scientists are not fully on board with the study’s conclusions.

Cat and dog pets. (Unsplash, Chewy)
Cat and dog pets. (Unsplash, Chewy)

Clive Wynne, the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe, told NPR that the time it takes for a dog to react to dropped food is not necessarily an indicator of whether the dog has understood the person’s intentions.

And in this experiment, Wynne pointed out that all the scientist’s actions were in fact intentional as they were only pretending to drop the treat.

“If you were to do that to me, I think I would catch on,” he told NPR.

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