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    Dogs Sneakily Steal Things Because They Understand Human Behavior

    If you live with a dog, or hopefully several, you might already be aware of the vast underestimation on the part of science of the abilities of dogs to think, feel, and generally understand stuff in ways that have rough analogs in the thoughts, feelings, and understandings of human beings. I say this as someone that has an above-average distrust of intuition and anecdote: my dog gets stuff. He performs behaviors that make sense from a human's perspective, ones that are not based on mimicry for the sake of food and other necessities of dog life that I, as a gullible human, can provide.

    I say this with some doubt, of course. I know the research: dogs are amazing learners and have exploitation down perfectly. This is how dogs evolved, exploiting the needs (hunting, emotional rescue, or otherwise) of humans for food and, thus, survival. (The dog/human thing is a case of co-evolution, more specifically; that is, we were obviously pushing the relationship too.) So, dogs don't really love us, or at least in any way we might recognize based on our own sense of love: they're just in it for the Taste of the Wild.

    Today I come bearing good news for friends-of-dogs. First off, a journal exists called Animal Cognition that is focused entirely on what animals do and don't "get." Second, the new edition of said journal contains a study titled "Dogs Steal in the Dark," containing new evidence that dogs have a higher-level understanding of human behavior that previously thought. I'll give fair warning: this isn't the sort of thing that will make you never look at your dog the same again, but it is some validation.

    Basically, the study took a bunch of dogs and tested them in an environment where they would have to understand a human perspective in order to react in a particular way. Researchers used 84 dogs and placed them in different lighting environments with a human and some food. The dog was told not to eat the food--and were presumably well-trained enough to not do it anyway under any conditions, like some bad dogs would (kidding: there are no bad dogs)--and in a situation when a human could be seen by the dog but the dog and food remained in the dark, the dogs went for it. So, dogs steal in the dark, OK.

    The four test conditions of the study/Juliane Kaminski

    So what, you ask? I did. I see a bottomless pool of dog behavior demonstrating that my dog understands human perspectives on a constant basis. Call it validation then, but also an interesting clue into the long-term evolutionary relationship between dogs and people--which, dog-friend or not, is important in the grand scheme of human development--and also the tantalizing whiff of more validation to come.

    Lead researcher Juliane Kaminski told the BBC, "These results suggest humans might be right, where dogs are concerned, but we still can't be completely sure if the results mean dogs have a truly flexible understanding of the mind and others' minds. It has always been assumed only humans had this ability."

    A friend of mine and fellow friend-of-dogs scoffed at the study, as most other friends-of-dogs probably will, but made this good point: "as long as it results in Neil DeGrasse Tyson having some goofy interaction with a border collie for a documentary I guess I'm all for it." Yes, please.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

    Top image: the author's dog Harley, by Abby Logsdon.

    Topics: dog thoughts, Juliane Kaminski, evolution, dogs

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