Recent research concludes: Dogs steal food in the dark.
But why is that significant?
Dogs steal food in the dark because people can’t see them do it.
But why is that significant?
That means that dogs know that human sight is inhibited by darkness. Or, in other words, dogs have an awareness of human perception.
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We know dogs are pretty clever at reading people’s eyes. They can read a person’s line of sight (i.e. they know where people are looking), they know when people close their eyes, they know they’re better off begging from people who look at them.
So we know dogs know eyes matter to them, but does that mean that they know eyes see? Until now, any research that has indicated dogs might have known that people see could be explained away by other conclusions. Recent research set out to change that.
They set up a number of scenarios where a dog was always forbidden from taking food in a particular room. Sometimes there was a human in the room, and sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes the human was in the light, sometimes they were in the dark. Sometimes the food was in the light, sometimes it was in the dark.
These variables were switched up in three different experimental conditions, using 84 dogs of varying breeds and ages (but all over 1 year old, and all ‘pet dogs’). Some of these dogs did have to be excluded from the study, for various reasons (including anxiety) along the way. Most dogs had several tests. The dogs behaviour were pretty consistent over several tests, and the first test they performed was normally consistent with all the following tests they were involved in.
They found that dogs stole more often and more quickly (i.e. they were less inhibited) when food was in the dark, regardless of the human being illuminated or in the dark in the room. That means that the dog didn’t care if the person was there, they only cared in the person could see them or not.
To test whether dogs were naturally inhibited by the light or dark, they run a study with a human out of the room and the dog left in the dark or the light. In this scenario, the dog took the food more quickly when it was in the light. This suggests that light itself isn’t inhibiting, but something about the human being there.
This lead to the research concluding, ”One possible high-level explanation could be that dogs understand that when the food… is illuminated, the human can see them approaching and stealing the food. The current finding therefore raises the possibility that dogs take into account the human’s visual access to the food while making their decision to steal it.”
As all research does, this paper calls for more research into this phenomena!
Kaminski, J., Pitsch, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs steal in the dark Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6
Science Daily article: Dogs May Understand Human Point of View
On a similar but unrelated topic: Do dogs want to communicate?