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Generalize or Personalize: Do Dogs Transfer an Acquired Rule to Novel Situations and Persons?

Does your dog understand what you say no matter where you say it? By Claudia Bensimoun

Dogs have always been great at understanding communicative signals given by trainers, handlers and their owners. When we think about all the different ways that dogs work with us, and how they have become such an important part of our lives, understanding human hand signals shouldnt be a problem for our canines. 

As reported in Plos-One, Dr. Juliane Kaminski and Dr. Michael Tomasello compared information about the pathways through which information is internalized in both dogs and infants. The researchers described learning as a "generalization of the originally acquired information to novel situations, new objects, new contexts and new places." They compared how long infants took to begin learning how to copy instrumental acts, which was as young as nine months old. By the time a child is 2-to-3 years of age, they'll understand a new game by normative means. ("Normative" means "what every child understands or knows.")

New research by Dr.Kaminksi and Dr. Tomasello questioned how dogs understood rules and the manner they did so. Would this be in a similar manner to human infants (episodic information which only exists in the immediate situation now), or generally, or as normative knowledge? In this study, Dr.Kaminski and Dr. Tomasello researched whether dogs would disregard a cue not to take the treat (1) when the communicator of the ban was present, (2) after a brief absence of the ban communicator and (3) in the presence of a new person. Not surprisingly, it was found that our canine companions tended to retrieve the banned treat more often when the communicator left the room even for a brief moment, and even when a new person entered the room, than when the communicator stayed in the room. 


These results suggest that our dogs "forget" a rule when the immediate person that gives the cue goes away, and demonstrates the importance of the presence of a demonstrator in modulating a dog's response. These studies by Dr. Kaminski also demonstrate how a dog's behavior will change according to the attentional state or mood of the person. "Dogs apparently did not perceive what they witnessed during demonstrations as being universally applicable. The authors concluded that dogs associate a given piece of information with the person who communicated it," via Plos-One.

According to Kaminski and Tomasello, "Dogs and other animals learn new things by observation and association, nonetheless are able to apply a communicative transmission pathway to transfer a bit of episodic information, which is relevant and important to the current situation," via Plos-One. This new study by Dr. Kaminski and Dr. Tomasello examines how much our canine companions are capable of rule-mediated learning, which predicts a similar performance in different settings, permitting dogs to understand a certain piece of information as a usual norm, and therefore as everyday norms. Read a similar study done by Dr. Ashton and Dr. Lillo at the University of Leicester.

The Study
In Kaminski and Tomasello's research that was done in Germany, owners and their dogs attended as volunteers for the study. Thirty nine pet dogs of all different ages and breeds were among those studied, with ages ranging from 8 months to 13 years. Testing was done at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The testing room had a video camera and necessary equipment, which included a Plexiglas wall of 120 cm in height. The Plexiglas wall had a door, which could be opened remotely.

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