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Dogs behave differently when people intentionally keep food away from them versus an accident 

Dogs CAN tell when you’re hiding snacks! Pooches won’t wag their tales as much and will approach people slower, study shows

  • Dogs may have cognitive abilities and understand when a person is intentionally doing something versus an accident
  • Researchers observed 51 dogs who were separated from humans by a glass partition wall – and put them in three conditions
  • When humans intentionally changed their mind and put food down in front of themselves, dogs took longer to approach
  • The other conditions saw more tail movement & the dogs approached the glass partition wall faster 


Dogs may have the ability to understand when a person is intentionally doing something, such as giving them a treat, compared to when something is done by accident.

The findings suggest that canines have cognitive abilities, a trait seen in humans.

Researchers at Harvard University observed 51 dogs – who were separated from humans by a glass partition wall – and put them in three conditions: 

Dogs may have cognitive abilities and understand when a person is intentionally doing something versus an accident

Researchers observed 51 dogs who were separated from humans by a glass partition wall - and put them in three conditions: unwilling, unable-clumsy and unable-blocked.

Researchers observed 51 dogs who were separated from humans by a glass partition wall – and put them in three conditions: unwilling, unable-clumsy and unable-blocked. 

  • Humans were going to give dogs food, but intentionally changed their mind and put it down in front of themselves. 
  • The food was ‘accidentally’ dropped before it could go through the gap. 
  • The last had the gap was blocked, not allowing the person to give the dog food. 

In the first condition, the one where humans could give them food, but intentionally changed their mind and put it down in front of themselves, dogs took longer to approach.

They also laid down more and did not move their tails as much.

The other two conditions – one where the food was ‘accidentally’ dropped before it could go through the gap; and where the gap was blocked, not allowing the person to give the dog the food – saw more tail movement and the dogs approached the wall faster.

‘Dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional,’ the researchers wrote in the study.

‘They waited significantly longer before approaching a reward that the experimenter had withheld intentionally than a reward that had not been administered due to human clumsiness or a physical obstacle. Thus, dogs were able to distinguish between the experimenter’s intentional and unintentional actions.

‘This suggests that dogs may indeed be able to identify the experimenter’s intention-in-action.’ 

When humans intentionally changed their mind and put food down in front of themselves, dogs took longer to approach. The other conditions saw more tail movement & the dogs approached the glass partition wall faster

When humans intentionally changed their mind and put food down in front of themselves, dogs took longer to approach. The other conditions saw more tail movement & the dogs approached the glass partition wall faster

The researchers want to study dogs further to see how far their ability goes in understanding intent

The researchers want to study dogs further to see how far their ability goes in understanding intent

It’s possible that there are other explanations for the results. 

However, the study’s lead author, Britta Schünemann, told Gizmodo it’s possible that ‘dogs [as well as chimpanzees and birds] might also have this very basic, but substantial capacity that is part of theory of mind.’ 

‘It’s always hard with non-verbal speech to really know what you’re measuring there,’ Schünemann, a Harvard University research scientist, added.

‘But the nice thing about this task is that it’s actually already established in other species.’

The researchers want to study dogs further to see how far their ability goes in understanding intent.

‘Dogs do not only have ample interactions with humans, but they are actively trained, also, with regards to accessing food,’ they wrote in the study. 

‘Accordingly, it is possible that during these interactions, dogs learn to read human behavior in that they associate certain forms of movement or facial expressions with the appropriate reaction of approaching (or not approaching) an object. 

The study was published earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports

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