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Does the A-not-B error in adult pet dogs indicate sensitivity to human communication?

Abstract

Recent dog–infant comparisons have indicated that the experimenter’s communicative signals in object hide-and-search tasks increase the probability of perseverative (A-not-B) errors in both species (Topál et al. 2009). These behaviourally similar results, however, might reflect different mechanisms in dogs and in children. Similar errors may occur if the motor response of retrieving the object during the A trials cannot be inhibited in the B trials or if the experimenter’s movements and signals toward the A hiding place in the B trials (‘sham-baiting’) distract the dogs’ attention. In order to test these hypotheses, we tested dogs similarly to Topál et al. (2009) but eliminated the motor search in the A trials and ‘sham-baiting’ in the B trials. We found that neither an inability to inhibit previously rewarded motor response nor insufficiencies in their working memory and/or attention skills can explain dogs’ erroneous choices. Further, we replicated the finding that dogs have a strong tendency to commit the A-not-B error after ostensive-communicative hiding and demonstrated the crucial effect of socio-communicative cues as the A-not-B error diminishes when location B is ostensively enhanced. These findings further support the hypothesis that the dogs’ A-not-B error may reflect a special sensitivity to human communicative cues. Such object-hiding and search tasks provide a typical case for how susceptibility to human social signals could (mis)lead domestic dogs.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Marleen Hentrup for her assistance in recruiting dogs; Sarah Marshall-Pescini and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous version of the manuscript. Funded by the OTKA (grant K76043), the ÖAD Foundation (grant 74öu3), ESF Research Networking Programme titled ‘The Evolution of Social Cognition: Comparisons and integration across a wide range of human and non-human animal species’, a private sponsor and Royal Canin.

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Correspondence to Anna Kis.

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Kis, A., Topál, J., Gácsi, M. et al. Does the A-not-B error in adult pet dogs indicate sensitivity to human communication?. Anim Cogn 15, 737–743 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0481-2

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Keywords

  • Dog
  • A-not-B error
  • Social cognition
  • Communication