Clever Paws

Research indicates dogs have some ability to read minds

The title is misleading. What the article is actually about is a psychology student’s research into whether dogs take the thoughts and feelings of others into account.

You know, I’d love to find evidence that Tierce isn’t just the Shiba genius I’ve always known him to be, but a SUPER-genius. Michelle Maginnity’s research, according to this article, seems to base a dog’s perceptions on what a person knows instead of the cues they give off when they know something.

Michelle said a range of scenarios were tested, for example, one person watched food being hidden while the other covered their eyes, and in each test the dogs showed a preference for the person who they believed knew where the food was.

“What this showed was that the dogs were able to take the perspective of the humans involved in the experiment, and attribute states of knowledge to those people,” Michelle said.

If the scenarios were all like this, then I am of the opinion that Maginnity is making the Clever Hans mistake.

Clever Hans was an Arabian stallion owned by Mr. Wilhelm von Osten, a math teacher. When von Osten started exhibiting Hans in 1891, Hans could apparently do mathematical problems, read and spell. Conventional testing failed to reveal any trickery or interference. The Hans Commission was formed to study Hans, which lead to Oskar Pfungst, a psychiatrist, being invited in to test Hans. Pfungst found out that Hans could only answer a question correctly if the questioner knew the answer. Hans also needed a close, clear view of the questioner to give correct answer. Subtle, unintentional body language was giving Hans his answers, not human-like intelligence or mind-reading.

What this article is ignoring (and I hope Maginnity isn’t) is that dogs can read extremely subtle changes in both scent and body language. Dogs have long been used to track people and animals; nowadays they are used to detect bombs and even cancer. The study mentioned found that dogs preferred the people who knew where the food was. Was it because they could “take the perspective of the humans involved in the experiment, and attribute states of knowledge to those people” or because they associated some scent or body language with getting food?

It might be worth mentioning that von Osten also tried teaching mathematics to a bear and a cat. The bear got pissed off and the cat just didn’t care. I’m thinking that a Shiba would fall between these two extremes. Shibas do have exceptional mathematical ability, however. Tierce, upon being shown three treats and given two, will still sniff out the third treat. Wait, did I say “sniff”?

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