Why Your Dog Might Think You’re a Bonehead

Why Your Dog Might Think You’re a Bonehead
Is this labradoodle trying to judge you? Credit: Jamie Garbutt/Getty Images

The verdict is in: Female dogs actively assess human competence.

Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60 Second Science. I’m Karen Hopkin.

Do you ever feel like your cat is judging?

[Cat meows]

Hopkin: You’re in for a surprise. It could be your pooch, who may be looking at you with a critical eye.

[Dog barking in experiment]

Hopkin: According to a study, dogs can evaluate human aptitude and will look at people who seem to know what’s going on. The work appears In the journal Behavioral Processes.

Hitomi Chijiiwa: Our goal was to determine if dogs are sensitive to human competence levels. This trait is also used to evaluate humans.

Hopkin: Hitomi Chijiiwa Osaka University assistant professor. It may seem odd for a puppy to criticize people’s proficiency, but it is possible. Canines have been with us for more than 10,000 years.

Chijiiwa: [So] Dogs are sensitive to human behavior.

Hopkin: They pay attention to things such as how cooperative they are.

Chijiiwa: Our previous study has shown that dogs will not help their owners if they aren’t offered assistance.

Hopkin: Chijiiwa and her coworkers wondered if dogs could also rate us on our skillfulness. These skills could be very useful for our four-footed friends. They set up a simple experiment.

Chijiiwa: Two people were able to manipulate transparent containers with 60 dogs. One person is competent.

Hopkin: After a few twists, the person was able open the top.

[Sound from experiment]

Chijiiwa: The other person is incompetent, and they failed at this task.

Hopkin: The person tried to open it, but gave up. The actors performed the same performance on a second container with the same results. The competent person succeeded, while the other failed.

The researchers then gave both actors a third container. This container was empty in some trials. Some containers contained treats while others were empty. They found that female dogs were more interested in the person who had previously demonstrated container opening skills.

Chijiiwa: They were also more likely to approach the competent individual.

Hopkin: They thought they would get free food.

Chijiiwa: Dogs in an empty environment showed no preference.

Hopkin: (Although a little cutie with a bow on the head did bark at all containers, regardless of what they contained.

[Audio of dog barking through experiment]

Hopkin: Hence, why are females more attentive to the performances of others than males?

Chijiiwa: Many mammalian species, including humans, have reported female superiority in the social cognitive domain.

Hopkin: This means that furry females have a higher social intelligence than mammalian males in cognitive studies. Other studies have also shown sex differences.

Chijiiwa: When faced with an unsolvable problem, females tend to look at their owners more often and for longer periods of time than males. [And] In social learning tasks, female dogs are able to complete more tasks than their male counterparts.

Hopkin: Fifi will be looking at you next time with puppy dog eyes. She might think, Meh, you could be better.

Karen Hopkin is the Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Editor.

[Dog barking]


    Karen Hopkin She is a freelance science writer based in Somerville, Mass. She is a contributor to the journal Biochemistry and holds a doctorate. Scientific AmericanThe 60-Second Science podcasts.

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