Dogs are less likely to follow bad advice than children, according to a new study conducted at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale. In contrast to children, dogs only copy a human’s actions if they are absolutely necessary for solving the task at hand, according to a recently published study appearing in the journal Developmental Science.
“Humans often fall prey to the bad advice of others” said Laurie Santos, director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale and senior author on this study. “Children tend to copy all of a teacher’s actions, regardless of whether they are necessary or not.”
For instance, in one study previously conducted at Yale by Dr. Frank Keil and colleagues, children watched a demonstrator solve a puzzle by first moving a lever and then lifting a lid to pull out a prize. Although the lever was completely irrelevant for solving the puzzle, children repeatedly performed both actions, even when they were in a race to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible.
The new study shows that dogs will leave out irrelevant actions when there is a more efficient way to solve a problem, even when a human repeatedly demonstrates these actions.
“Although dogs are highly social animals, they draw the line at copying irrelevant actions,” said Angie Johnston, Yale Ph.D. student and lead author on the study. “Dogs are surprisingly human-like in their ability to learn from social cues, such as pointing, so we were surprised to find that dogs ignored the human demonstrator and learned how to solve the puzzle on their own.”
Together with Yale’s Paul Holden, Johnston and Santos designed a dog-friendly puzzle box in which the only relevant action for getting the treat was lifting a lid on top of the box. However, just as in the previous experiment with children, when researchers showed dogs how to use the box, they first demonstrated a lever on the side of the box before lifting the lid to get the treat. Once dogs learned how to open the box, they stopped using the irrelevant lever. In fact, the researchers found that dogs were just as likely to stop using the lever as undomesticated canines, wild Australian dingoes.
“One reason we’re so excited about these results is that they highlight a unique aspect of human learning,” said Johnston. “Although the tendency to copy irrelevant actions may seem silly at first, it becomes less silly when you consider all the important, but seemingly irrelevant, actions that children are successfully able to learn, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth.”
This study is the first published paper coming out of Yale’s new Canine Cognition Center, which is still seeking dogs to participate in ongoing research.