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Dogs distinguish human intentional and unintentional action

By Britta Schünemann, Judith Keller, Hannes Rakoczy, Tanya Behne, Juliane Bräuer

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When dogs interact with humans, they often show appropriate reactions to human intentional action. But it is unclear from these everyday observations whether the dogs simply respond to the action outcomes or whether they are able to discriminate between different categories of actions. Are dogs able to distinguish intentional human actions from unintentional ones, even when the action outcomes are the same? We tested dogs’ ability to discriminate these action categories by adapting the so-called “Unwilling vs. Unable” paradigm. This paradigm compares subjects’ reactions to intentional and unintentional human behaviour. All dogs received three conditions: In the unwilling-condition, an experimenter intentionally withheld a reward from them. In the two unable-conditions, she unintentionally withheld the reward, either because she was clumsy or because she was physically prevented from giving the reward to the dog. Dogs clearly distinguished in their spontaneous behaviour between unwilling- and unable-conditions. This indicates that dogs indeed distinguish intentional actions from unintentional behaviour. We critically discuss our findings with regard to dogs’ understanding of human intentional action.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2021
Publication Title Scientific Reports
Volume 11
DOI 10.1038/s41598-021-94374-3
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Dogs
  3. Gestures
  4. Human-animal communication
  5. Mammals
  6. open access
  7. Pets and companion animals
  1. open access