They might spend a lot of their time fetching Frisbees and chasing their tails, but our goofy canine companions may be smarter than we realize. In fact, when it comes to distinguishing useful instructions from pointless ones, dogs are even faster learners than human children, according to a recent study in the journal Developmental Science.
TIME reports that researchers at Yale’s new Canine Cognition Center (which, incidentally, is looking for canine volunteers in the New Haven area) presented domesticated dogs and dingoes with a simple food-retrieving puzzle, consisting of a box with a lid and a lever. Opening the lid of the box allowed dogs access to a treat, while the lever served no functional purpose. Before letting their canine volunteers tackle the puzzle box, researchers demonstrated how to open it, first pressing the lever, then opening the lid.
Initially, 75 percent of the dogs and dingoes imitated the researchers, touching the lever before opening the lid. However, during subsequent trials, both dogs and dingoes quickly realized the lever step was unnecessary, and increasingly skipped it, going straight for the lid. After four trials, only 59 percent of dogs and 42 percent of dingoes continued using the pointless lever.
“Although dogs are highly social animals, they draw the line at copying irrelevant actions,” lead author Angie Johnston explained in a statement. “Dogs are surprisingly human-like in their ability to learn from social cues, such as pointing, so we were surprised to find that dogs ignored the human demonstrator and learned how to solve the puzzle on their own.”
By contrast, previous studies have found that children consistently over-imitate their teachers, faithfully copying both relevant and irrelevant steps while solving a puzzle. For instance, one 2005 study found that 3- and 4-year-olds would perform as many as five steps to solve a puzzle, even when some were pointless, without changing their strategy.
Of course, that doesn’t mean dogs are smarter than children, but rather, that humans and dogs learn in very different ways. Researchers believe that human over-imitation may have important social benefits. “One reason we’re so excited about these results is that they highlight a unique aspect of human learning,” Johnston explained. “Although the tendency to copy irrelevant actions may seem silly at first, it becomes less silly when you consider all the important, but seemingly irrelevant, actions that children are successfully able to learn, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth.”