A distinguishing feature of human intelligence is our ability to understand the goals and intentions of others. This ability develops gradually during infancy, and the extent to which it is present in other animals is an intriguing question.
New research by Friederike Range and Ludwig Huber, of the University of Vienna, and Zsofia Viranyi, of the Eötvös University in Budapest, reveals striking similarities between humans and dogs in the way they imitate the actions of others. The phenomenon under investigation is known as "selective imitation" and implies that dogs--like human infants--do not simply copy an action they observe, but adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action. The research will appear online on April 26th in the journal Current Biology, published by Cell Press.
In the study, dogs were faced with the task of opening a container with food by pulling a rod. Whereas dogs prefer to use the mouth for this task, a female dog was trained to open the box with her paw. When the other dogs observed the female's action, they imitated it in order to get the food. However, the dogs imitated selectively. They used their mouths instead of their paws for manipulating the rod when they had seen the demonstrating dog using her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. However, when the demonstrating dog's mouth was free, the dogs imitated her action completely and used the paw themselves.
This means that the way the dogs imitate is tuned to the goal of the action. If the dogs perceive the demonstrator being unable to use her mouth, because she holds a ball in it, they choose the easier, more preferred way to achieve the goal. But when the mouth is free, there appears to be a reason for the demonstrating dog not to use her mouth, and so the dogs imitate the action.
The new work shows for the first time that animals do imitate selectively. This reveals a striking parallel between dogs and human infants in that they do not simply "ape" an action, but only do so if it appears appropriate for the goal. In that sense, dogs seem more similar to us humans than are our biologically closest relatives, the chimpanzees, which will in similar tasks always opt for the more effective way of attaining the goal.
A number of such striking cognitive parallels between humans and dogs have been documented in recent years and are presumably due to the long intimate communicative relationships humans have had with dogs during their domestication.
The researchers include Friederike Range and L Huber of University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria; Zs Viranyi of Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution & Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria and Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary.
This work has received research funding from the European Community's Sixth Framework Programme under contract number: NEST 012929. We thank all our dogs and their owners for participating in our experiment.
Range et al.: "Selective imitation in domestic dogs." Publishing in Current Biology 17, May 15, 2007. www.current-biology.com