Dogs are able to solve a means-end task

Abstract

Dogs, although very skilled in social-communicative tasks, have shown limited abilities in the domain of physical cognition. Consequently, several researchers hypothesized that domestication enhanced dogs’ cognitive abilities in the social realm, but relaxed selection on the physical one. For instance, dogs failed to demonstrate means-end understanding, an important form of relying on physical causal connection, when tested in a string-pulling task. Here, we tested dogs in an “on/off” task using a novel approach. Thirty-two dogs were confronted with four different conditions in which they could choose between two boards one with a reward “on” and another one with a reward “off” (reward was placed next to the board). The dogs chose the correct board when (1) both rewards were placed at the same distance from the dog, when (2) the reward placed “on” the board was closer to the dog, and (3) even when the reward placed “off” the board was much closer to the dog and was food. Interestingly, in the latter case, dogs did not perform above chance, if instead of a direct reward, the dogs had to retrieve an object placed on the board to get a food reward. In contrast to previous string-pulling studies, our results show that dogs are able to solve a means-end task even if proximity of the unsupported reward is a confounding factor.

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Acknowledgments

The project is financially supported by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) projects P21418 and P21244 (FR). We thank Corsin Müller for helping with the analyses, the dog owners for participating, and Daniel Povinelli and three referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We further thank a private sponsor and Royal Canin for financial support of the Clever Dog Lab.

Conflict of interest

We declare that all experiments conducted in this study comply with the current laws of Austria where they were performed and that the authors have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Friederike Range.

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Range, F., Hentrup, M. & Virányi, Z. Dogs are able to solve a means-end task. Anim Cogn 14, 575–583 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-011-0394-5

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Keywords

  • Support problem
  • On/off problem
  • Means-end understanding
  • Dogs
  • Clicker training
  • Reward type