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updated 2/17/2011 10:48:56 AM ET 2011-02-17T15:48:56

The family hound is a lot better at seeing past nutty human behaviors and a lot less like humans than previously thought, according to a new study.

Previous research had suggested that dogs can distinguish between rational and irrational acts by dogs and humans -- the latter being something like pointing to the location of food with your toe when your hands are free to do the same.

But new research from Germany concludes that dogs don't really pick up on rationality.

Instead, they cut to the chase and pay attention to the matters that most concern them, like food or toys.

The research centers on what's called social, or imitative learning.

In humans this kind of learning was made famous by an experiment in which children watched an adult with a blanket over his shoulders (making his hands unavailable) use his forehead to press a switch to turn on a lamp.

This is considered a rational act since his hands were not free. When children saw this they did not imitate the behavior, instead they just pressed the lamp switch with their hands.

On the other hand, when the adult then made his hands free, but still used his forehead to activate the switch (an irrational act), the children used their foreheads as well, imitating the adult.

When the children use their hands despite the adult (hands covered) using their forehead, they are recognizing a rational act, scientists explain. When the children use their foreheads, they are unsure of the rationality of the adult's actions, and are resorting to imitation alone.

Three years ago a group of researchers asserted that dogs could do the same, using a similar experiment, but with a dog watching another dog using its paws or mouth to manipulate a handle. The equivalent of a blanket in the human experiment was a ball held in the mouth of a dog which was being observed (dogs often use their mouths to manipulate things).

That research concluded that dogs can actually distinguish between rational and irrational acts, just like human children.

But not so fast, says behavioral researcher Claudio Tennie and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and at Harvard University. The entire previous experiment was based on the assumption that dogs are able to learn by copying behaviors, which is not at all proven.

"There doesn't seem to be any social learning in dogs," said Tennie. His team have tried to find such behavior in dogs -- like whether a dog can learn a dog-human ball game by watching -- but found none. "We couldn't find imitation in dogs. Dogs completely failed to do that."

So when the other team tested dogs for an even higher level behavior -- recognizing rational from irrational acts -- Tennie and his colleagues were skeptical. "They took for granted what we couldn't even find," he said.

To examine the matter more closely, Tennie and his team duplicated the experiment, but checked to see if it was just the presence of a ball -- a highly interesting object to most dogs -- that was actually causing dogs to seem to distinguish between rational and irrational acts.

"We tested it with the ball present or not present," Tennie told Discovery News. "We found that there is no difference, as long as there is a ball."

Their experiments are reported in the January issue of the journal Animal Behavior.

"(Tennie and his colleagues) have convincingly shown that ...it is the sight of the ball, rather than assessing rationality of choice of means as a function of the context, that primes the mouth action," said Gyorgy Gergely of Central European University's Cognitive Development Center in Budapest.

Tennie and his colleagues went further and tested whether dogs could distinguish between a human pointing to food with their toe or fingers, with and without hands free (rather like the original experiment with human children).

What they found is that the dogs didn't notice the rationality of the act, but took the clue in a more pragmatic way and found the food either way.

All these experiments also help to zero in on exactly how dogs have evolved to read our cues, said Gergely. So studying the significant differences in human and canine communication and learning is very important for understanding human evolution of communication -- as well as just understanding dogs, he said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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