When You Get Dissed, Your Dog Knows And Acts Accordingly

By: Laura Geggel
Published: 08/21/2015 12:07 PM EDT on LiveScience

Dogs may play catch, obey commands and even share the occasional dessert with their owners, but can they understand simple interactions between people?

A new study says yip-yip-yes.

In a recent experiment, dogs tended to avoid people who had snubbed the animals’ owners, the researchers found. This suggests that dogs can read human social situations, an ability known as “social eavesdropping.” [Like Dog, Like Owner: What Breeds Say About Personality]

However, not everyone is on board with the study’s conclusions.

“So far, it is not clear what dogs understand about human interactions,” said Marie Nitzschner, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who was not involved in the study. “More research is needed.”

Social eavesdropping

As many dog owners know, the animals eagerly watch people all the time, said the study’s senior author, Kazuo Fujita, a professor of psychology and comparative cognition at Kyoto University in Japan.

But it’s not clear whether dogs watch people for the animals’ own immediate benefit (such as for a signal that they’re getting a treat) or simply to figure out what’s happening.

If dogs, or any animals, are able to socially eavesdrop on people, it could help the animals assess people from afar.

“The ability to glean information from a social exchange without having to participate in it themselves would be very useful,” said Shannon Kundey, an associate professor of psychology at Hood College in Maryland, who was not involved with the study. “They would be able to gain a lot of information while putting themselves at minimal risk.”

Scientists have assessed social eavesdropping in a menagerie of animals, including chimpanzees, tufted capuchin monkeys, common marmosets, domestic dogs and cleaner fish, in which the animals watched human actors interact. But many of these —> Read More