Read My Mind – What is Theory of Mind and Why Should You Care?

“He pees in the house every time we leave.  I know why he’s doing it.  He’s angry with us and wants to punish us for leaving him alone. I know he knows it’s wrong too, because he looks guilty when we come home.”

(Looking for Finn?  Don’t worry, he’ll be back, we’re just taking a break this week to talk about other important topics!)

Boxer, Dog, Sad, Breed, Pet, Animal

How many times have you heard someone say that his or her dog did something out of spite? Or that he knows he was wrong because he acted guilty?  It is very common for people to draw conclusions about the emotions that are driving their dog’s behavior.  This is called theory of mind – the formation of a “theory” about what is going on in the mind of another (making inferences about their beliefs, thoughts and emotions) and using that information to predict and interpret their behavior.  Many people then use that information to drive their own behavior.  If someone thinks their dog is behaving out of spite, they may be more likely to use punishment.  Or, if someone thinks their dog is stubborn, rather than confused, they may be more likely to get frustrated with her, or to give up on training altogether.  Confusion is a temporary state, after all, but stubbornness is a personality trait.  On the other hand, if you believe your dog is fearful or stressed, you may be more likely to take steps to alleviate that stress, rather than punishing your dog, or giving up on training altogether.

Dogs, Pensive, Reluctant, Pet, Sad, Lazy

Incidentally, behaving out of spite or feeling guilty, also requires some degree of theory of mind.  In order to do something out of spite, you need to understand that your behavior is likely to upset someone else. That is, it requires making inferences about their thoughts and feelings.  In addition, guilt is a “self-conscious” emotion and emerges in children at about the same time as self-awareness (between 18 and 24 months).  Guilt requires the appraisal of another’s thoughts and feelings about your behavior.   If a dog behaves in a certain way and then becomes fearful because he is expecting punishment, that does not necessarily mean he understands how the punisher feels, or what they are thinking.  However, in order to experience guilt, you are responding to how you think your behavior affected the other party (not just how your behavior is going to affect you).

Are dogs capable of Theory of Mind? 

The short (and oversimplified) answer is, we don’t know.  It is very difficult to test for the presence of theory of mind.  As Gordon Gallup puts it,

How am I to know when an animal is aware or unaware? …The only experience I can ever experience is my own experience. There is no way for me to experience your experience, let alone the experience of a species other than my own. We can infer experience from behavior. But, behavior is not always isomorphic with experience.1

That is, behavior does not always accurately reflect internal thoughts and emotions.  Have you ever smiled when you are angry or pretended to be “fine” when you are actually in emotional turmoil?  Then you can understand how hard it is to understand what another species – one that is nonverbal – is thinking and feeling.  One common test of theory of mind is a perspective taking task.  These tasks aim to measure whether or not a dog is capable of understanding that a particular individual has a different perspective than their own.  For example, will a dog know to beg from a person that is looking at them, rather than a person that is focused on the television?  Or someone that is sleeping?

Animal, Chairs, Chihuahua, Cute, Dog

Tests on perspective taking abilities in dogs have been mixed and we still need additional research to sort out the details.  One issue is that success at nonverbal perspective taking tasks is also influenced by prior learning.  Why does a dog choose to beg from a person who is looking at them rather than someone with his or her back turned?  Is it because they know that a person watching the dog means the person is aware of the dog or because they have a long history of being reinforced by people that are looking at them (as compared to those with their back turned)?  It is difficult to sort out why dogs succeed or fail at these types of tests.  It can be hard to sort through the different studies and to keep up with them, but I will be giving a webinar next week (and again in September) on one paper that tries to address this question.  Read on for more information on the webinar as well as how it applies to dog training and behavior.

 Why Do We Care?

As I illustrate above, owners commonly make assumptions about their dog’s perspective and this influences the behavior of the owners.  If these assumptions are incorrect, then we are doing the dogs a disservice because we are holding them to a standard that they are completely unable to meet.  On the other hand, if the assumptions are correct, dogs may be capable of so much more than we give them credit for.     If we understand how dog’s interpret the world around them, particularly in a social context, we will be much better equipped to prevent and treat behavior problems in dogs.

Animal Welfare, Dog, Imprisoned

One thing we do know is that dogs vary in how well they perform on perspective taking tests.  It’s possible that some dogs are better able to navigate the human world and these differences could have profound impacts on an individual dog’s ability to adapt appropriately to living with a human family.  Dogs that have a more difficult time recognizing and interpreting human behavior, for example, may be at higher risk for certain behavior problems, which puts them at higher risk for surrender and euthanasia.  At best, it likely affects their quality of life as well as the quality of life of the family they live with.  Are certain groups of dogs (for example, shelter dogs) less skilled at responding appropriately to humans?  Are we able to predict which dogs might struggle in a home environment and, if so, are there certain things we can do to help these dogs?

If you find these questions intriguing and would like to learn more, please register for my webinar on the topic.  I am presenting it twice – once on Tuesday, August 29th at 12 pm EST and again on Saturday, September 16th at 2 pm EST.  Click the following link for more information or to register:  http://smartdogtrainingandbehavior.com/online-services/#research bites

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Science Matters

The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

Recent Posts