dog

Dogs seem to show body awareness when completing a fetch task

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Dogs seem to be conscious of their bodies and understand that their own actions have consequences.

Research has previously shown that dogs can pick up on human emotions and can use deception, but it has been unclear whether or not they show self-awareness.

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“We need to take into account the ecology and evolution of the species,” says Rita Lenkei at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest, Hungary. “As they evolved in complex human societies, dogs should possess one of the basic self-awareness abilities,” she says. So Lenkei and her colleagues performed a test for body awareness in which an individual’s body became an obstacle to achieving a goal.

In a test involving 32 dogs, the researchers instructed each animal to retrieve a toy. In some cases, the toy was attached to a mat that the dog was standing on, meaning the animal had to move off the mat in order to bring the toy to the instructor. In other cases, the toy was secured to the ground, making it impossible to retrieve even if the dog left the mat.

For the trials in which the toy was attached to the mat, the team found that about 80 per cent of dogs left the mat when attempting to complete the task – the figure dropped to 50 per cent for the trials in which the toy was attached to the ground. What’s more, dogs that left the mat were more likely to do so with the toy in their mouth if the toy was attached to the mat rather than to the floor.

Lenkei says these findings suggest that dogs understand their bodies can get in the way when it comes to completing tasks and know to move accordingly, pointing towards a sense of body awareness.

Juliane Bräuer, who runs the dog labs at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany, says these results aren’t surprising, but lay the groundwork for future self-awareness studies. “We know dog strengths lie in social cognition and communication, so it’s interesting to show they actually know something about their physical environment,” says Bräuer.

Many animals, including elephants and manta rays, demonstrate another form of self-awareness: they can recognise themselves in a mirror. Dogs can’t do this.

Lenkei suggests that the presence of self-awareness could vary across species depending on their evolution and ecology. “It emphasises the importance that self-awareness is not inherent, but more an array of connected cognitive skills,” she says. “Body awareness is a little piece of the puzzle,” she says.

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-82309-x

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