Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60 Seconds of Science. I am Karen Hopkin.
Have you ever had the feeling that your cat is judging you?
Hopkin: Well, a surprise awaits you. Because it is actually your dog that can see you with a critical eye.
[Dog barking in experiment]
Hopkin: That’s according to a study that shows dogs can assess human ability and will stare at people who seem to know what they’re doing. The study was published in the journal Behavioral Processes.
Hitomi Chijiiwa: Our goal was to test whether dogs were sensitive to people’s proficiency levels. And whether they judge people by that trait.
Hopkin: Hitomi Chijiiwa is an assistant professor at Osaka University. If criticizing people’s competence seems like an odd job for a puppy, it may not be so forced. Dogs have spent more than 10,000 years with us.
Chijiwa: [So] Dogs are very sensitive to human behavior.
Hopkin: And they pay particular attention to things like how cooperative we are.
Chijiwa: For example, our previous study showed that dogs avoid people who refuse to help their owners.
Hopkin: So Chijiiwa and her colleagues began to wonder if dogs could also judge us for our resourcefulness. Especially if these skills can come in handy for our little four-legged friends. So they set up a simple experiment.
Chijiwa: We showed 60 dogs two people manipulating clear containers. One person is authorized.
Hopkin: This person was able to open the top after just a few twists.
[Sound from experiment]
Chijiwa: However, the other person is inadequate and has failed in this task.
Hopkin: That person tried to open the lid, then gave up. The players repeated the performance in a second bowl and with the same results: The person in charge succeeded, the other not so much.
Then the researchers gave both players a third cup. In some trials, this container was empty. In others, it involved a cure. And what they found was that female dogs spent more time looking expectantly at the person who had previously demonstrated their knowledge of container opening.
Chijiwa: And they were more likely to approach the authorized person.
Hopkin: But only when they thought they could get free food.
Chijiwa: Dogs in the null state showed no preference.
Hopkin: (Although a small dessert with a bow on the head barked into all the containers, regardless of their contents.)
[Audio of dog barking through experiment]
Hopkin: So why do women censor people’s performances more than men?
Chijiwa: Female predominance in the social cognitive domain has been reported in many mammalian species, including humans.
Hopkin: In other words, in many cognitive studies, hairy females appear to show a higher social IQ than mammalian males. And sex differences have been seen in other offspring studies.
Chijiwa: For example, females stare at their owners more often and longer than males when faced with an unsolvable task. [And] Female dogs solve significantly more tasks than males in a social learning task.
Hopkin: So… the next time Fifi looks at you with those puppy dog eyes… you might be thinking what a good dog she is! But Meh might be thinking you can do better.
On behalf of Scientific American’s 60 Seconds of Science, I’m Karen Hopkin.