TechDifferences in perception. Study shows that dogs and children interpret pointing gesture differently

Differences in perception. Study shows that dogs and children interpret pointing gesture differently

Dog looking through the window
Dog looking through the window
Images source: © Adobe Stock
12:42 PM EST, January 20, 2024

The researchers offered explanations for this phenomenon. In their opinion, the difference in perception results not just from the differences in visual perception between dogs and humans, but also from differences in the cognitive process and interpretation of gestures. Evidence for this is the observation that in more intelligent dogs, an object's appearance holds the same significance as its location, suggesting that these dogs' information processing is more similar to a human's.

A look at spatial bias

This phenomenon is referred to as spatial bias. It's a cognitive error involving the interpretation of information in relation to space, location, or distance, despite the fact that such information could just as easily be applied to a specific object.

For example, when we show a dog or a child the location of an object, the child reads this gesture as pointing to the object, while the dog perceives it as a directional cue. In other words, regardless of the pointing person's intention, the gesture's meaning varies between the child and the dog, explains Dr. Ivaylo Iotchev, co-author of the study, that has been published in the journal "Ethology".

Spatial bias was observed in several prior behavioral tests, but it hadn't been thoroughly researched until now. However, understanding it can help us better comprehend how dogs think.

Previous studies haven't clarified if dogs behave this way due to inferior eyesight compared to primates, or because spatial parameters hold more importance to them than specific nearby objects, explains Dr. Iotchev.

Fascinating findings from a grand dog study

Dr. Iotchev and his team conducted two behavioral tests involving 82 dogs to study spatial bias. In the first test, dogs had to learn, within a maximum of 50 trials, if a treat is always on the right or left plate, leading them to know its location. For the second test, they used two types of plates - a white round one and a black square one - which were consistently set out in the middle of the research hall.

The dog was consistently served food on the same plate, however, this plate appeared in random order, alternating with the other empty plate. The efficiency of learning was gauged based on how swiftly the dogs moved to the correct plate.

Results indicated that the dogs learned quicker when the treat was placed on either the right or left side of the hall, requiring them to choose a direction. Conversely, they struggled more to remember which type of plate held the treat. This showed that dogs absorbed information about location more readily than about object features.

What is the essence of the spatial error?

To understand if the spatial error is sensory, cognitive, or a combination of both, it was necessary to detect and measure differences between dogs' visual and cognitive abilities. This involved measuring the dog's head, as it's correlated with visual acuity, as well as assessing how well dogs handled challenging tasks.

The visual abilities of different dog breeds vary, which is partially related to the shape of the head. Brachycephalic dogs, which have shorter snouts, have vision similar to humans. Their retina construction permits sharper and more focused vision than breeds with long snouts, explain the study authors.

Assessing the dogs' cognitive abilities involved participating in a series of memory, attention, and perseverance tests. It was found that the spatial bias was less pronounced in dogs that exhibited better fine detail recognition.

Smarter dogs perceive more like humans

In the next research phase, the scientists wanted to investigate if there was a correlation between spatial bias and dog intelligence. It's known that in human children, bias diminishes with increasing intelligence (which, in this case, is associated with age), so the scientists hypothesized that this might also be the case with dogs.

Dog intelligence was evaluated based on their ability to solve more complex tasks.

The findings showed that spatial bias is less pronounced in smarter dogs, as well as in those exhibiting greater visual acuity.

Therefore, it seems that the spatial bias in dogs is not solely a sensory issue, but also a significant factor influencing the way they think. Additionally, we discovered that smarter dogs demonstrate better resilience to challenging, stressful situations during learning, allowing them to overcome their biases, concludes Dr. Iotchev.

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