Whoa, science just told us our dogs may be eavesdropping on us

We all know how much our dogs love eagerly watching us. (Mine is watching me as I write this, TBH). But science says the reason may not just be that they’re waiting for a treat or a walk. It could, in fact, be “social eavesdropping.” No, we’re not talking about how your dog can understand words like “vet” and “outside” — a new study suggests that dogs can actually understand, to a degree, simple interactions between people.

In a study published in Science Direct this month, researchers conducted an experiment in which a dog’s owner tried to open a container to get a junk object out of it (using food would have complicated the results). The dog watched as the owner asked an actor sitting next to him/her for help. In one condition, the actor held the container stable so the owner could open it; in the other condition, the actor turned away, refusing to lend a helping hand. (There was also a control condition, where the owner didn’t ask for any help and the actor turned away.) In all of these conditions, a neutral person sat on the other side of the owner.

Afterwards, the neutral person and the actor in all conditions offered food to the dog. In the control condition and the condition where the actor helped out, the dog chose food randomly. . . but in the condition where the actor refused to help, the dog was biased against the actor and took food from the neutral person.

So what does this mean? Well, firstly, your dog has totally got your back. If someone’s mean or rude to you, your dog will be mean or rude to that person right back. Which is, you know, adorable. But also, it means that dogs may understand basic human interactions and respond to them accordingly. “The dogs’ avoidance of someone who behaved negatively to the owner suggests that social eavesdropping may be shared with a nonprimate species,” the researchers wrote in the article covering their study.

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

But why didn’t the dogs prefer the helpful actor in the helping condition? It’s possible that helping is a standard that dogs have. “Dogs may have hated a violator of this standard,” the study’s senior author, Kazuo Fujita, told Live Science. “Similar negativity bias has been reported in human infants.”

The problem with many previous studies on this general subject is that researchers used food. . . which can complicate results. “Typically, one actor generously gives food to a human beggar, and the other refuses to do so,” Kazuo Fujita told Live Science. “And the dogs tended to go to the generous actor. No wonder. Dogs may naturally do so with the expectation that ‘this person is more likely to give me food.’”

It’s important to note that this study has limitations. For example, the dog may have been choosing a side rather than a person, and if the two people switched sides, it may have skewed results; the owners could have also inadvertently been giving cues about the experiment to the dogs without intending to. But even though more research needs to be done, we’re going to be looking at our dogs differently from now on. (Maybe it’s not so weird that I talk to my dogs now. . . ?)

(Image via author’s Instagram)