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Can Your Dog Decipher Between Good and Ill Intent?

Is your dog tuned into your thoughts as well as your actions? Can dogs tell when their human is just being clumsy or they’re intentionally messing with them? This study shows just how important it is for dogs to try to connect with us on a mental level - and for us to help them do so.

can your dog decipher between good ill intent


  • A new preprint study reinforces earlier research suggesting that dogs can distinguish between intentional and unintentional human behavior
  • In the current study, 48 pet dogs showed by their behavior and body language that they instinctively understood the intentions of a “clumsy” human vs. a human who was deliberately messing with them
  • A study published in 2021 also showed that dogs can tell the difference between intentional and accidental human behavior, and react accordingly
  • The dogs in the earlier study were much more likely to try go after a treat when the experimenter accidentally dropped it or physically couldn’t get it to them (unintentional actions) than when the experimenter teased them with it but wouldn’t give it to them (intentional action)
  • Recognizing intention-in-action, as the dogs in the study seemed to, is a basic component of theory of mind
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Research shows that dogs, including very young puppies, instinctively understand the messages humans send with pointing gestures. So now the question is, “Can dogs actually read our minds, or have they just lived alongside us for so long they’ve evolved to make certain connections, such as a pointing hand and a yummy treat?”

The answer is a source of controversy in the world of cognitive biologists, which is why a team of researchers at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna decided to take a different approach, using an experiment fashioned after one designed to determine if human babies can read the intentions of adults. The results of their exploration were published recently on the bioRxiv preprint server.

For their study, the researchers offered treats to several dogs under two conditions. In the first condition, the researchers “clumsily” dropped the treat; in the second condition, the researchers teased the dogs by snatching the treat away just as they were about to take it.

Interestingly, even though the basic hand gestures the researchers used were the same, they observed that the dogs seemed more frustrated when they were teased. This suggests the dogs understood the difference between good and ill intent in the human treat-givers.

Dogs Seem to Understand When They’re Being Messed With

To conduct the experiment, one of the researchers, Maud Steinmann, an undergraduate biology student at the HAS University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, put herself in jail — a rectangular box with mesh on the sides and a clear plastic panel in the front. In the middle of the panel was a hole the size of a golf ball.

Next, 48 pet dogs of various breeds were led into the room, which was also outfitted with eight cameras to record the action, along with artificial intelligence-driven 3D tracking software that captured every movement of the dogs, no matter how insignificant.

In one set of “mind games,” Steinmann held a piece of sausage near the hole, which suddenly “slipped” from her fingers back into her enclosure each time a dog approached. In another exercise, she held the treat near the hole, but jerked it away as soon as a dog got close enough to grab it. And in the final exercise, the hole was covered, and while Steinmann tried to push the treat through, she couldn’t. Each of the three trials lasted about 30 seconds.

According to the researchers, the dogs seemed to understand when they were being toyed with. They hung around in front of the enclosure for 89% of the trial in which the researcher kept accidentally dropping the treat. However, when she tempted them with the treat and then snatched it back, the dogs stuck around for only 78% of the trial.

When the hole was blocked, the dogs spent only 64% of the trial near the plastic panel, and quickly moved to the side of the cage, assuming they might get the treat through the mesh.

She wants to give me food, but she can’t,” Christoph Völter, lead study author and comparative psychologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, imagines the dogs thinking. “So I’m going to try to get it another way.”

The 3D tracking software also revealed that the dogs’ tails hinted at their thinking. It showed they tended to wag more on the right side of their bodies when the researcher was clumsily dropping the treat. Previous research has linked tail wagging to the right, which indicates left-brain activity, with a positive response. This suggests the dogs in the study thought the researcher’s intentions were good when she dropped the treat vs. when she snatched it away.

It's Important for Dogs to Tune Into Our Thoughts

Although this was a preliminary study, the findings are important according to Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona (who wasn’t involved in the research), especially considering how hard it is to understand what’s going on in the mind of another species. The findings, MacLean believes, support the notion that dogs are tuned into our thoughts as well as our actions.

He also believes the 3D tracking adds an extra level of precision to the experiments because it picks up subtle cues that a human observer might miss, such as a quick tail movement.

Interestingly, while chimpanzees, our closest relatives, don’t follow human pointing gestures, other studies have shown they behave similarly to dogs in experiments like those used in the current study — meaning they can also read our intentions.

According to MacLean, if dogs are truly passing both the pointing and clumsy tests, it suggests they have a fundamental theory of mind (more about this shortly) — the ability to understand what others are thinking, which could mean they are “considerably more complex” in their grasp of the intentions of others than chimps. And they wouldn’t just understand what we’re thinking, but also that we want them to know what we’re thinking.

In summary, MacLean believes studies like this one demonstrate just how important it is for dogs to try to connect with us on a mental level, if just to help them understand “what the heck we’re up to.”

“Most of what we do must seem really weird to dogs,” MacLean says. “Trying to get inside our minds would be really useful.”

Do Dogs Have ‘Theory of Mind’?

According to a similar study published last year, the results of which the current study above reinforces, it seems that dogs can indeed tell the difference between, and react differently to, intentional vs. unintentional human behavior.

Ever since humans and canines teamed up, dogs have demonstrated a knack for understanding us. The fact that we can teach them to sit, lay down, and roll over when we ask them to, is just one example. However, until recently, we hadn’t begun to unravel whether dogs understand not only the visual and verbal cues we give them, but also the intentions behind them. According to ScienceDaily:

“The ability to recognize another's intentions — or at least conceive of them — is a basic component of Theory of Mind, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, long regarded as uniquely human.”

The question researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History set out to answer was, “Do dogs have this basic component of Theory of Mind, the ability to tell the difference between something done on purpose and something done by accident?”

The team conducted an experiment to observe how dogs react when humans both intentionally and unintentionally withhold treats. They used a paradigm called “unable vs. unwilling,” which prior to this study had only been used in human cognition research.

A total of 51 dogs were included in the study. Each dog was tested in three slightly different situations, each of which involved being separated from the researcher by a transparent barrier. The experimenter first fed the dogs treats through a gap in the barrier before changing things up for the test.

  1. In the “unwilling” situation, the experimenter first offered the treat, but then suddenly pulled it back through the gap and placed it in front of her.
  2. In the “unable-clumsy” situation, the researcher held the treat at the gap, “tried” to pass it through, and then “accidentally” dropped it.
  3. In the “unable-blocked” situation, the experimenter tried to give the treat, but couldn’t because the gap in the barrier was blocked.

In all three test situations, the treats never made it through the gap to the dog.

Study Says: Dogs Can Recognize Intention-in-Action

The researchers assumed that if dogs have the ability to ascertain humans’ intentions through their actions, then the dogs in the study would react differently in the first “unwilling” situation compared to the two “unable” situations.

In theory, the dogs 1) wouldn’t be as eager to approach the treat the experimenter was unwilling to give them because they assumed from the human’s behavior that they weren’t supposed to have it, and 2) would be more willing to approach the treat in the second and third situations, because it had obviously been intended for them.

The researchers observed that not only did the dogs wait longer in the unwilling situation than the following two situations, but they were also more likely to sit or lie down and stop wagging their tails — behavior that is often interpreted as appeasement.

"The dogs in our study clearly behaved differently depending on whether the actions of a human experimenter were intentional or unintentional," lead study author Britta Schünemann said in a news release. "This suggests that dogs may indeed be able to identify humans' intention-in-action," adds co-author Hannes Rakoczy from the University of Göttingen.

As Juliane Bräuer, head of the dog studies lab at the Max Planck Institute notes, the situations the dogs faced were unusual, because normally their owners wouldn’t be in the habit of teasing them with a treat and refusing to give it to them. The way the dogs reacted, she says, "might really suggest that they are able to understand intention, at least in this simple set-up."

While further research is required to confirm these findings, they present the first bit of evidence that dogs possess at least one aspect of theory of mind — the ability to recognize intention-in-action.