Mankind's furry best friends may also exhibit an awareness of their own knowledge. According to new research published in Learning & Behavior, when dogs don’t have enough information to solve a problem, they may tap into their “metacognitive” abilities to seek other ways of filling in those gaps of knowledge.
Beyond humans, this ability to “know what one knows” has previously been observed in great apes and, until now, was thought to be unique to primates. To examine whether dogs share the ability to “access, monitor, and control one’s own perceptual and cognitive processes”, researchers at the Dogstudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History created a test where nearly 50 pet dogs of various breeds had to find either a toy or food behind one of two fences. In some cases, the dog could see which fence the reward was placed behind, while in other instances the dog could not. In the latter situation, the researchers recorded how often the dogs would “check” through a gap in the fence before making a choice. Checking suggests a dog is seeking to gather more information before making a final decision, the researchers noted.
The dogs that didn’t see where the treat was placed sought out additional information significantly more than those who saw which treat was placed where. Additionally, dogs who were being rewarded with toys selected the correct fence more often than those rewarded with food.
“These results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden,” explained researcher Julia Belger in a statement. “The fact that dogs checked more when they had no knowledge of the reward’s location could suggest that dogs show metacognitive abilities, as they meet one of the assumptions of knowing about knowing.”
However, it could be the dogs were acting off of instinct or routine rather than awareness. To control for this, the researchers applied the “passport effect", which holds that when people are looking for something important, such as a passport, they will search more actively and often for it than something of lesser importance. Apes exhibit this behavior when searching for high-value food, so the team monitored changes in the dogs’ behavior when accounting for low- or high-value food, as well as the differences between a toy or food.
Checking didn’t always make the dogs more successful in finding the high-value treat, nor did it grant them any level of accuracy over than just pure chance. Furthermore, dogs weren’t any more accurate even when they checked, nor did they exhibit any sort of learning behavior between trials.
So, the study suggests dogs do have metacognition, but the evidence is not conclusive. In fact, it could have been less about seeing and more about smelling.
“For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case our experiment was based on a ‘checking’ action relying on sight – but the dogs probably also used their sense of smell when checking through the gap. We know that smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it,” said Bräuer, continuing that future studies will analyze differences in how dogs use their sense of smell versus sight.