Man’s Best Friend: Dogs May Understand Human Perspective Better than Previously Thought

Dogs may truly be man's best friend.

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Michael Kloth / Corbis

Is there a dog more beautiful than this blonde bombshell? The Golden Retriever’s shiny, soft coat is irresistible for animal-lovers, but it’s their personalities that make them a family favorite. Goldens are known to be kind, friendly and confident. They may not make the best guard dogs, but they will be fast friends with any humans they come in contact with.

2011 Ranking: 4

Famous Friends: Shadow (Homeward Bound), Buddy (Air Bud), Liberty (the pet of President Gerald Ford)

If you’re seeking a sympathetic friend, you may need to look no further than your dog. A recent study revealed that dogs are far more capable of understanding situations from a human’s point of view than previously believed.

The study, which was published in the journal Animal Cognition, was intended to see if dogs demonstrated a “flexible understanding” of a human’s point of view. Researchers conducted a test on84 dogs to assess the level at which they understood what a human was or was not experiencing using a very simple system: They turned out the lights.

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The pets and their owners were put in a room with a bowl of dog treats, which the dog was made to understand he or she was not allowed to touch. The researchers hypothesized that if the dogs went for the forbidden snacks when the lights went down, they understood that their owners could no longer see — thus showing that the dogs understood that their human companion’s perspective had changed and could adapt their own behavior in response. If the dogs didn’t change their behavior — and didn’t go for the verboten snack — then the researchers hypothesized that dogs couldn’t understand that their owners could no longer see. (And, yes, the experiments was designed to avoid dogs falsely associating sudden darkness with someone giving them food.)

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The results showed that dogs were four times more likely to steal the forbidden food when the lights were turned off and their humans could not see their “naughty” behavior. Dr Juliane Kaminski, from the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department, told the BBC that the study was “incredible because it implies dogs understand the human can’t see them, meaning they might understand the human perspective.” However, she did add that “we still can’t be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind,” noting that previously only humans were believed to have this ability.

Keep that in mind next time you’re looking for someone to complain to about your relationship.

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