In each trial, a scent path was laid down by one of the toys, and the dogs were encouraged to follow it. Half the time, the dogs found the toy they expected to discover at the end of the road; the other half, the so-called “surprise condition”, featured the second toy.
The idea was that, if the dog had a mental image of the toy they expected to find in their minds, they would act somewhat, well, surprised when they found a different object. If they relied merely on smell and didn’t have said mental picture formed in their mind, then they’d just be content to have followed the trail.
As it turns out, a fair few dogs were indeed surprised. Footage captured them hesitating upon making their discovery, before continuing to search for the toy they presumably expected to find. The effect of the surprise disappeared after a few runs, however – perhaps because they enjoyed being rewarded for playing the game regardless, the team suggest in a press release.
Incidentally, the working dogs were better at the game at first, but the difference between them and the family dogs disappeared over time. All things considered, the authors concluded that a variety of dogs can picture what they can see in their mind, “independent from their educational background.”
More research is of course needed – after all, these conclusions are based more on reasonable inferences than anything more concrete – but this is inarguably a beautifully simple, elegant paper with potentially significant implications for our floofy friends.