Press-Republican

FYI...

May 22, 2014

Barks and recreation: Cracking the canine code

(Continued)

SAN FRANCISCO —

Other studies have revealed that dogs yawn when they see humans yawning and that they nuzzle and lick people who are crying; scientists consider both behaviors displays of empathy, a rarely documented trait in the animal kingdom. Dogs have even been shown to be pessimistic: When a group of canines in one study learned that a bowl placed on one side of the room contained a treat and a bowl on the other side contained nothing, some of the dogs just sat there when the empty bowlwas placed in the center of the room; they figured it was empty and didn't waste their time. These same dogs evinced what researchers said was a similar pessimistic attitude when their masters left for work: They were more likely to howl and tear up the couch when their owner disappeared, possibly because they didn't believe their master would return.

Bekoff's recent work suggests another remarkable canine skill: the ability to know what another animal is thinking — a so-called "theory of mind."

Dogs seem to display a rudimentary form of this skill during play. He has noticed, for example, that one dog won't begin trying to play with another dog until he has her attention. To get her to notice, he may nip the other dog or run into her field of view. That, Bekoff says,shows that the one wanting to play knows that she's not paying attention to him. Though this may seem like a simple skill, it's incredibly important to our species. Without it, we can have a hard time learning or interacting with the world around us.

Interestingly, dogs even outsmart chimpanzees on some theory-of-mind tests. When a researcher points at one of two cups, for example, dogs almost always run to the cup that is pointed to, a sign that they have intuited what the scientist was thinking — i.e., that the researcher was trying to show the dog something. Chimps, by contrast, have no idea what we mean when we point at something.

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