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Study: Like humans, dogs know when they don’t know enough to make a decision

Your dog may more indecisive about making choices than you might realize, says a new study.

Your dog may be more indecisive about making choices than you might realize, says a new study.

A new study finds that dogs will acquire more information if they know they don’t have enough facts to make a decision similar to humans and chimpanzees. This decision-making process is called “metacognitive” trait, according to Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The researchers sought to find out whether dogs are aware of the information they have learned and when they need to know more information before taking a specific action. Scientists used 48 dogs of different ages who received standard obedience training.

Dogs were required to find a reward, such as a toy or a treat, hidden behind one of two V-shaped fences. Some of the dogs were allowed to see where they hid their reward while some were not allowed.

The researchers recorded how often the dogs looked between the gaps in the fences before deciding which one had the reward they desired. The scientists wanted to see if the dogs would check before making a decision. They found that most of the dogs that hadn’t seen where the reward was placed checked both fences more frequently than those that were shown the location before choosing one over the other.

Bottom line, 94 percent of the dogs that saw the placement of the reward (treat or toy) selected the correct fence, while 57 percent of the dogs that did not see the placement still chose correctly.

“These results show that dogs do tend to actively seek extra information when they have not seen where a reward is hidden,” said study co-author Julia Belger in a media release. “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.”

“For humans, vision is an important information gathering sense. In this case our experiment was based on a ‘checking’ action relying on sight – but the dogs probably also used their sense of smell when checking through the gap. We know that smell is very important for dogs and we could see that they were using it,” says lead researcher Juliane Bräuer. “In future, we would like to develop an experiment investigating under what circumstances dogs decide to use their sense of smell versus sight. This may give us additional insights into their information seeking abilities.”

Interestingly, the study also showed that dogs tended to check more frequently for the toy than the food, showing there was a greater value placed on the toy and thus the pets do show some flexibility in the way they make decisions. The study also discovered that even when dogs saw where a reward was placed, they still typically checked the incorrect fence to be sure — indicating they simply can’t ignore their inhibitions like humans could, even when the dogs know what’s right and wrong.

The study was published November 12, 2018 in the journal Learning and Behavior.



Jeremy Spencer grew up in rural South Georgia and has served as a healthcare provider, high school science teacher, school administrator, and state education official. Jeremy is currently the market and content manager for All on Georgia-Camden and Glynn Counties. Jeremy’s focus is local news, statewide education issues, and statewide political commentary for the All on Georgia News Network. Jeremy has served as an education policy analyst for local legislators and state education leaders as well as a campaign strategist for local and statewide political campaigns. Jeremy holds degrees in science and education from the University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and Valdosta State University. Jeremy has lived in Camden County for over 17 years.

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