Your dog may be a lot smarter than you think, according to a new study conducted by European scientists.
Like many animals, dogs have long been known to copy human actions by imitation — for example, for a dog to pick up a ball with its mouth after it sees a human pick up a ball by hand.
But the new research, reported by the Washington Post, shows that canines might also think about how to imitate another dog's behavior by considering the circumstances of the original action — a form of reasoning until now seen only in humans.
"The fact that the dogs imitate selectively, depending on the situation — that has not been shown before," study leader Friederike Range of the University of Vienna told the Post.
Range and her Austrian and Hungarian colleagues trained a border collie, Guinness, to release a tasty snack by pushing down on a hanging wooden bar with her paw — an action somewhat contrary to normal dog behavior, because dogs generally prefer to move objects with their mouths.
They then made Guinness do so repeatedly while two groups of other dogs watched.
The first group of dogs watched Guinness push the bar with her paw — while her mouth was preoccupied with holding a ball.
When it was their turn to push the bar, about 80 percent of them did not copy Guinness exactly, and used their mouths instead of their paws. So did a control group of dogs that did not watch Guinness at all.
A second group watched Guinness push the bar with her paw again — but without anything in her mouth, leaving it unclear as to why she used her paw instead.
Of this group, about 80 percent used their paws rather than their mouths, copying her exactly and going against their natural doggie instincts.
The scientists figure that most of the dogs in the third group may have thought Guinness knew something they didn't, and that they had better copy her exactly.
"What's surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans," Brian Hare, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, told the Post. "Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought."