Does Your Dog Know When You’re Teasing Him?


Dogs are more patient with humans who accidentally drop a tasty treat out of their reach than they are with humans who are simply teasing them, suggesting that dogs may understand human intentions

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Previous research has found that most primates have some degree of understanding of the intentions of others based on observed behaviors. Whether dogs also share this ability has been a matter of debate.

Dogs have been companions to humans for thousands of years, but even now, we still don’t know how well dogs understand our intentions. We do know that dogs closely monitor the body language and actions, as well as the signals, intonations and facial expressions of their humans, and there is evidence suggesting that dogs’ cognitive abilities have adapted to life in human society (ref). For example, dogs understand human pointing gestures whereas primates — even chimpanzees — do not. But according to previous research, most non-human primates possess the ability to distinguish between humans who are unable or unwilling to perform a given task (ref). Does a dog also have this cognitive ability?

Christoph Völter, a postdoctoral fellow who studies problem-solving in humans and other animals at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, collaborated with a team of scientists to investigate whether pet dogs can distinguish between intentional and accidental actions by strangers. Dr Völter and his collaborators built a small cage with plastic mesh on three sides and a clear plastic panel with holes drilled into it on the fourth side. This cage was placed into an empty room and a researcher, who was a stranger to the dog being tested, sat inside the cage (Figure 1).

The experiment, known as the unwilling-or-unable paradigm, is quite simple. A researcher would offer the dog a tasty slice of sausage by pushing it through one of the holes drilled in the plastic panel. To test whether the dog understood the intent, the researcher sometimes only pretended they were going to give the treat to the dog but held on to it instead (unwilling-teasing trial). Other times, the researcher pretended to drop the sausage accidentally (unable-clumsy trial) on their side of the plastic panel where the dog couldn’t reach it. In both situations, the dog never got the treat, but the reason differed.

In total, 96 trials of 48 dogs (each dog was tested twice) were conducted to assess whether they could distinguish between a human experimenter’s unwillingness versus inability to give them a proffered treat. In all trials, the dogs had to wait 30 seconds before finally getting their reward, a time period during which the team carefully monitored their reactions.

Comparing the unwilling-teasing trials to the unable-clumsy trials, Dr Völter and his collaborators predicted that the dogs would spend more time away from the plastic barrier separating them from the experimenter (as reported for chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys), look away from the experimenter more frequently (similar to human infants and horses), and sit or lay down for longer periods of time.

When Dr Völter and his collaborators reviewed and analyzed the results, they found that when the sausage was held back intentionally (unwilling-teasing), the dogs did indeed respond by backing up and sitting or lying down. In contrast, when the treat was withheld accidentally (unable-clumsy), the dogs responded in a more forgiving manner, continuing eye contact, tail wagging and maintaining close proximity to the researcher-sausage dispenser, suggesting they were still expecting the treat. These results were similar for different dogs, regardless of breed, age or sex.

I thought it was interesting that the dogs wagged their tails more on their right side after the unable-clumsy trial, a behavior known to indicate a happy and relaxed dog, possibly suggesting the dog had forgiven the poor human oaf. Later, Dr Völter and his collaborators tested whether the dogs held any hard feelings for one experimenter over the other in two subsequent transfer tasks: in the first, a preference task, the teasing and clumsy experimenters stood passively and the dogs could choose to approach them. In the second, an object choice task, the dogs could choose to explore one of two different food bowls that the teasing and clumsy experimenters were simultaneously pointing to.

According to Dr Völter and his collaborators, the results provide robust evidence that dogs can indeed distinguish between similar human actions that lead to the same outcome but are associated with different intentions.


Christoph J. Völter, Lucrezia Lonardo, Maud G. G. M. Steinmann, Carolina Frizzo Ramos, Karoline Gerwisch, Monique-Theres Schranz, Iris Dobernig and Ludwig Huber (2023). Unwilling or unable? Using three-dimensional tracking to evaluate dogs’ reactions to differing human intentions, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences | doi:10.1098/rspb.2022.1621

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