An article in Psychology Today – psychology for people who know nothing about psychology (like me), or more politely for the wider public – describes research that suggests that dogs have a rudimentary Theory of Mind, or one piece of a TOM.
Experimenters tested whether dogs beg more (or less) from people who (they can see) can’t see them or from people who can. It was the second. This of course causes not the faintest surprise in anyone who’s spent any time with dogs. Of course dogs cue in on human attention. I make eye contact with dogs in the street. I smile at them. They react. And these are stranger dogs. Of course dogs pay attention to human attention, including their line of sight.
And so the experiments confirmed.
Stanley Coren sums up:
Over all these results suggest that dogs do have a strongly entrenched, perhaps genetic, predisposition to try to “read the mind” of humans, at least at the level of understanding that humans must pay attention to them if they are going to be able to get them to respond. Wolves can learn this, at least at a low level for the most obvious of cues (when an individual has their back turned) but not for the more subtle cues, such as the familiar situation where a human is looking at a book and thus not attending to what is going on in front of them.
Or when she is looking at a computer screen and thus is not attending to the dog. Cooper starts awake when I put my reading glasses down on the desk. Yes, he knows from attention all right.
So, can dogs read your mind? Well they certainly seem to have a theory of mind and they are trying to figure out what you are thinking so that they can communicate with you and get a bit more of what they want out of life.
But do they have an elaborate enough theory of mind that they think about the feral cat outside who might be hungry and thus might want some of their food? Do they have an elaborate enough theory of mind that they then decide to leave some of their precious food behind for that possibly hungry cat outside who might come inside and eat it?