Dogs React To Goal-Directed Behavior in a Surprising Way!

Dogs React To Goal-Directed Behavior in a Surprising Way!




IMG_0182              Image Credit: Claudia Bensimoun


“In the habituation phase dogs in the animate group saw the experimenter interacting repeatedly with one of two objects.” via PLOS ONE.

If you’re an agility competitor, then you’ll know that your dog is smart. With agility being such a competitive sport, handlers are always curious to see just how smart their agility dogs really are, and how they respond to goal-directed behavior. This helps with training for agility, and seeing if your pooch has what it takes to be successful in this most popular sport.

According to a new research paper by Dr. Sarah Marshall-Pescini and colleagues at the University of Milan, Italy, dogs respond to a person with a new object differently than one interacting with a known object. Dr.Sarah Marshall Pescini and colleagues published this study in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Dogs look at a person interacting with a new object longer than a person interacting with a familiar object moved to a different location, suggesting perception of goal-directed behavior.” via Science Daily.

In past research it’s been demonstrated that dogs are very sensitive to new stimuli and communicative cues. Researchers have found that nonhuman primates may be able to perceive goal-directed behavior, most especially dogs that are most sensitive to human communicative cues. With this research, Dr.Sarah Marshall-Pescini and colleagues found that dogs will look at a new object and respond to people that are doing something important in the same way as an infant would. In this research no communicative cues were used with the dogs.

According to Science Daily, past research demonstrates that children develop and pay close attention to what their caregivers are doing in relation to how this affects them. Dr. Sarah Marshall Pescini used the Woodward infant test that had been used on five-month-old infants to see whether domesticated dogs would attribute goal-directed behavior to a person, and not to an object (black box), while the person was holding the box. The researchers found that dogs could perform the test at the same level as infants.

“The dog was then presented with 3 new- side trials. Here the experimenter interacted with the novel object, the watering can, placed in the old location.” via PLOS ONE.


The Research


  • 50 domesticated dogs
  • Black box
  • Globe
  • New object- watering can
  • Woodward test for 5-month old infants

How The Research Was Done

 All the dogs were given time to get used to their new environments while kenneled in a new location. The dogs had to undergo two sets of trials.


  • The first situation being where the person had to interact with a black box in a new location, and the second situation where the person interacted with a new object that was in the same location.
  • During the habituation phase where the domesticated dogs were getting used to their new surroundings, the dogs watched the experimenter interact with one of the two objects.
  • According to the research paper in Science Daily, the dogs had to first do a number of trials to reach habituation. After that, the dogs were presented with 3 new-side trials where the experimenter interacted with the same object that was placed in a totally different location.
  • Then the dogs were presented with repetitions of the new-goal trial where the experimenter would interact with the new object, the watering can.



  • According to Science Daily, dogs reacted in a similar fashion to infants. They tended to look at the person holding the new object in the same location, instead of looking at the same object that was moved to a new location.
  • Sarah Marshall Pescini found no difference in the results using the black box or the new object. (watering can)
  • The researchers found that the results demonstrated that a nonprimate species might be able to see someone else’s actions as goal-directed.
  • The researchers also found that dogs may also view the actions of humans, but not the black boxes as goal-directed.
  • More studies are needed to ensure that the results stem from a dog’s cognitive processing abilities.


These results are important because they demonstrate that all dogs can recognize goal-directed behavior. Also that dogs will respond more to the person interacting with a particular object after having changed locations, rather than to a new object in an old location.


“Novelty was perceived differently for the animate and inanimate agents: in fact dogs looked longer at the person when she suddenly interacted with a different object but did not show the same pattern of looking behavior when the black box changed objects. This suggests that dogs formed an expectation about the object directed goals of the human, but not of the inanimate object.” via PLOS ONE. This research paper demonstrates that dogs do show a similar response to that of infants and can perceive human actions as goal- directed.



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