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Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fail to show understanding of means-end connections in a string-pulling task

Abstract

Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) were tested in four experiments for their understanding of means-end connections. In each of the experiments, the dogs attempted to retrieve a food treat that could be seen behind a barrier and which was connected, via string, to a within-reach wooden block. In the experiments, either one or two strings were present, but the treat was attached only to one string. Successful retrieval of the treat required the animals to pull the appropriate string (either by pawing or by grasping the wooden block in their jaws) until the treat emerged from under the barrier. The results showed that the dogs were successful if the treat was in a perpendicular line to the barrier, i.e. straight ahead, but not when the string was at an angle: in the latter condition, the typical response was a proximity error in that the dogs pawed or mouthed at a location closest in line to the treat. When two strings that crossed were present, the dogs tended to pull on the wrong string. The combined results from the experiments show that, although dogs can learn to pull on a string to obtain food, they do not spontaneously understand means-end connections involving strings.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Sally Jones from Dogs “R” Dogs and Taunton Dog Training Club for their help with the data collection, David Taylor for constructing and repairing the apparatus, and Dr Lucy Jacobs for facilities provided to Stephen Lea as a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, where the writing of the paper was completed. All experiments were carried out in accordance with laws governing animal welfare in the United Kingdom.

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Correspondence to Britta Osthaus.

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Osthaus, B., Lea, S.E.G. & Slater, A.M. Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fail to show understanding of means-end connections in a string-pulling task. Anim Cogn 8, 37–47 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-004-0230-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-004-0230-2

Keywords

  • Dog
  • Means-end task
  • Problem-solving
  • String-pulling