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Dogs Too Smart to Follow Useless Advice

'They draw the line at copying irrelevant actions,' researcher reports

FRIDAY, Oct. 14, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Dogs are less likely than children to follow useless instructions, researchers say.

In experiments with 40 pet dogs, the Yale University team found that dogs only copy a person's actions if doing so is essential to getting what they want. This is not true of children.

"Humans often fall prey to the bad advice of others," study senior author Laurie Santos, director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, said in a university news release. "Children tend to copy all of a teacher's actions, regardless of whether they are necessary or not."

When people repeatedly demonstrated actions that were useless in solving a puzzle, dogs ignored them if there was a more efficient way to complete the task, the researchers said.

"Although dogs are highly social animals, they draw the line at copying irrelevant actions," said study author Angie Johnston, a doctoral student at Yale.

"Dogs are surprisingly human-like in their ability to learn from social cues, such as pointing, so we were surprised to find that dogs ignored the human demonstrator and learned how to solve the puzzle on their own," she added.

In this experiment, the researchers put dog treats inside a box. Lifting the lid was the only necessary action for getting the treat. But when researchers taught dogs to use the box, the instructors first pulled a lever on the side of the box.

However, the dogs soon figured out the lever was irrelevant to getting the treat. So they stopped using it.

Previously, the researchers had children watch a teacher solve a puzzle by first moving a lever and then lifting a lid to pull out a prize. Kids continued performing both actions, although the lever was irrelevant for solving the puzzle.

"One reason we're so excited about these results is that they highlight a unique aspect of human learning," said Johnston.

"Although the tendency to copy irrelevant actions may seem silly at first, it becomes less silly when you consider all the important, but seemingly irrelevant, actions that children are successfully able to learn, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth," she explained.

The study results were published recently in the journal Developmental Science.

More information

The Humane Society of the United States offers dog care and behavior tips.

SOURCE: Yale University, news release, Sept. 26, 2016

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