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Do Dogs Possess “Metacognitive Abilities”?

Dogs are the best pets that one can actually own. Dogs are faithful, cute, sweet and caring. They’re loyal, intelligent, devoted and affectionate – and are known to improve our physical and mental health. They love and adore their owner with all their heart and repay the love that they receive tenfold.

Indeed nothing can beat the peace and joy that one attains while playing and cuddling a dog. Not just this, dogs are indeed smart pets too. They act smartly in adverse and dangerous situations and sometimes prove helpful for their owners also. In a recent research that was conducted on dogs by the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, it has been revealed that dogs possess some "metacognitive" abilities. They are smart enough to access that when they do not have the complete information and there is need for them to seek some more information. A test was conducted wherein the dogs had to find a reward: which was food or a toy behind one of the two fences that was put before them. The dog was not aware that where exactly was the food hidden. In another case, the dog was aware that behind which fence the food was hidden. The researcher tried to observe that how frequently the dog looked through a gap in the fence. If the dog would do so, it would indicate that the dog had that much sense to analyse that it did not know where the food was hidden and it would look for some useful additional information before making a choice between the two fences. During the research, few of the researchers believed that dogs do not possess metacognitive abilities. Searching is a part of their general behaviour only. For example, when a human looks for or tries to find out an important thing or document, he/ she invests more time and energy into it in comparison to something that doesn’t hold that much value for them. The researchers believe that dogs are of the same tendency. They also invest more time searching for food that is of higher value to them in comparison to food possessing lower value. The results of the research brought forward the following inferences:

(i) The dogs checked majorly for the reward when they had not seen where it was placed.

(ii) When dogs checked they were correct more often than when they did not check.

(iii) Even when dogs checked, they were not correct more than one would expect based on chance.

(iv) The dogs did check more often for the toy than for the food in the first variation. This shows that they do show flexibility in their searching and are not just engaging in a routine behaviour.

Therefore, it can’t be said conclusively that dogs possess metacognitive abilities or not. The researchers were of the view that they would have to conduct more experiments wherein they would investigate that under what circumstances dogs decide to use their sense of smell versus sight.

By: Anuja Arora