Dogs Could Share A Unique Learning Ability With Their Human Best Friends

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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.”

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