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Study Finds Dogs Judge Human Competence

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For 13 years, my dog Rio has loved catching treats I toss him. That food-motivated Lab mix excels at watching a piece of kibble fly through the air toward his face and snatching it with his mouth mid-flight.

Occasionally my throw is off, and the treat will hit the top of his head or land way out of his reach. Before lunging after the snack, he’ll take a moment or two to stare at me with a look that seems to say, “Really? I’m so disappointed in you. Do better!”

So I wasn’t surprised that a study at Kyoto University in Japan found that dogs judge human competence. Though I know from personal experience that male dogs can be judgmental, female dogs proved particularly adept.

Researchers in the study titled “Female dogs evaluate levels of competence in humans” observed the reactions of pet dogs to two different human actors demonstrating competence or incompetence. The competent person was able to quickly remove the lid from a transparent container holding dog treats, while the incompetent person tried unsuccessfully numerous times before giving up.

Then the dogs watched both actors try to open a third container holding food. That’s when the dogs stared longer at the competent person – and female dogs were more likely to approach them. The dogs were most likely hoping for a treat and deciding to keep an eye on the competent person as having the best chance, since they didn’t show any preferences when the actors tried to open empty containers.

The scientists concluded, “This result suggests that dogs can recognize different competence levels in humans, and that this ability influences their behavior … Our data also indicate that more attention should be given to potential sex differences in dogs’ social evaluation abilities.”

The findings did not surprise Lynette A. Hart, MA, PhD, Professor of Anthrozoology and Animal Behavior and Vice Chair of the Department of Population Health and Reproduction at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis.

“Dogs are often highly attentive to humans, so I think this result is to be expected, and it is good to see the clear evidence,” she said. “It is a good first start.” 

Dr. Hart noted that dogs are individuals who differ widely. The 74 dogs who participated in the study offered a range of breeds (and mixes) and ages (5 months to 14 years).

“One would expect different capabilities among breeds on this assigned task. There is a reason that German Shepherds are used in police work. In this study two young German Shepherds were assigned to the food condition and did very well,” she said. “The next research step would be to work with dogs of more defined breed and neuter status, comparing capabilities.” 

She also found it unsurprising that females were more successful judging competence in the study. Her own research for the book The Perfect Puppy found that female dogs are generally more trainable and attentive to humans than male dogs.

Her own Australian Shepherd, Minnie, adjusts her behavior to different humans. She’ll be gentle with certain people but engage in vigorous play with others.

Ultimately, the study is a vivid reminder that dogs are alert and attentive in noticing what each person does for or with them – and is one more reason to be competent in providing them with enrichment, socialization activities and a variety of friends – both human and canine. (Since you’re reading Fear Free Happy Homes, you probably don’t need a reason other than love to be a competent pet parent, but it’s a great reason to seek out different ways to be the best companions we possibly can, right?)

In fact, another recent study showed that the social stimulation provided by living with another pet for some dogs may add to a dog’s longevity.

“Of course, our dogs are healthier and happier if we can provide them a supportive, interesting life,” Dr. Hart said. “Dogs thrive with a rich social life.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.

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