Ball or stuffed toy -- Do dogs 'know' what they're smelling?

March 05, 2018

Dogs' excellent sense of smell is well-known, whether it is in the context of searching for people or for contraband substances. However, the question of how dogs understand what they perceive with their sense of smell has largely been unexplored. In a study published today in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Department for General Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience (Institute of Psychology) at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, investigated this question and found evidence that dogs create a "mental representation" of the target when they track a scent trail. In other words, they have an expectation of what they will find at the end of a trail.

In total, study director Dr. Juliane Bräuer and her staff tested 48 dogs, 25 of whom had training with the police or a search and rescue team and 23 of whom were family dogs without special training. The tests were carried out with the financial support of the Swiss Albert Heim Foundation in the Dog Studies group of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The dogs first underwent a pre-test, in which two toys were identified for each dog that he or she liked to retrieve. In the test itself, each dog underwent four trials in which he or she followed a scent trail that was drawn with one of the two toys. At the end of the trail, the dogs found either the toy with which the track had been laid (the normal condition) or the dog found the other toy (the surprise condition). Half of the dogs in the first round were given the normal condition, and the other half were given the surprise condition. The behavior of the dogs was filmed during all test runs.

"From my experience in other studies, I had assumed that the surprise would be measurable, in that the dogs would behave differently in the surprise condition than they would in the normal condition," Dr. Bräuer explains regarding her study approach. "In fact, quite a few dogs showed interesting behavior, especially in the first round of the surprise condition, which we called 'hesitation:' although they had obviously noticed the toy, they continued to search via smell, probably for the toy that had been used to lay the scent trail."

However, this "surprise effect" disappeared in the subsequent test runs. This could be because the dogs, no matter which toy they found, were rewarded by playing games, or because the room still smelled of the toys from the previous test runs, despite having been cleaned.

According to Dr. Bräuer's assessment, the results of the first round of testing are nevertheless an indication that dogs have a mental representation of the target object when tracking a scent, which means that they have a concrete expectation of the target. "The comparison between working dogs and family dogs was also interesting," adds Dr. Bräuer. Although the police and rescue dogs were expected to and did indeed retrieve the objects faster than the family dogs in the first round, within four rounds the two groups retrieved the toys equally quickly. Further studies should help to clarify the exact connection between smell perception, search behavior and cognition.
-end-
For more information about Juliane Bräuer's research, please visit the Dog Studies website: https://doglab.shh.mpg.de/dog-cognition.php.

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Related Behavior Articles from Brightsurf:

Variety in the migratory behavior of blackcaps
The birds have variable migration strategies.

Fishing for a theory of emergent behavior
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba quantified the collective action of small schools of fish using information theory.

How synaptic changes translate to behavior changes
Learning changes behavior by altering many connections between brain cells in a variety of ways all at the same time, according to a study of sea slugs recently published in JNeurosci.

I won't have what he's having: The brain and socially motivated behavior
Monkeys devalue rewards when they anticipate that another monkey will get them instead.

Unlocking animal behavior through motion
Using physics to study different types of animal motion, such as burrowing worms or flying flocks, can reveal how animals behave in different settings.

AI to help monitor behavior
Algorithms based on artificial intelligence do better at supporting educational and clinical decision-making, according to a new study.

Increasing opportunities for sustainable behavior
To mitigate climate change and safeguard ecosystems, we need to make drastic changes in our consumption and transport behaviors.

Predicting a protein's behavior from its appearance
Researchers at EPFL have developed a new way to predict a protein's interactions with other proteins and biomolecules, and its biochemical activity, merely by observing its surface.

Spirituality affects the behavior of mortgagers
According to Olga Miroshnichenko, a Sc.D in Economics, and a Professor at the Department of Economics and Finance, Tyumen State University, morals affect the thinking of mortgage payers and help them avoid past due payments.

Asking if behavior can be changed on climate crisis
One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.

Read More: Behavior News and Behavior Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.