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Dogs Understanding Robots
Study looks at canine and robotic behavior

Several studies have shown that dogs can understand human gestures better than other primates, thought to be the result of evolving alongside people for so long.  But what if it were a robot doing the pointing?

Researchers at the Hungarian Academy of Science and Eötvös Loránd University set out to see how dogs would react to robots that exhibited social behavior, but didn't look like a human.

The dogs were divided into two groups to individually observe a set of interactions. One was between two humans (a researcher and a member of their family) and the second was between their human family member and a robot. One group used a robot exhibiting social behavior (such as talking) and the other used an asocial robot.  

These interactions were followed by a food session in which either their person or the robot pointed out the location of a hidden snack.

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for the dogs to find the food when the robot pointed it out. But interestingly, the dogs were were better at understanding the gesture if the social robot pointed it out, as opposed to the asocial robot. Researchers believe that seeing people interact with the robots influenced how the dogs saw the electronic creature.

This reminds me of research done last year on social referencing and canines. That study found that dogs will mirror the behavior of their handlers, particularly when it comes to something they're not sure about.  In this case, the robots would be the strange, novel experience.  

As more canine cognition research is completed, it's very cool to see how the findings tie together. Studies like this make me really think about how the things I do (consciously and unconsciously) affect my dogs' behavior! 

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by Eniko Kubinyi.

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