Object permanence -- the notion that an object hidden from view still exists -- is a concept that has been extensively studied in human infants and toddlers. Questions about dogs' cognitive abilities and how they perceive the world have led scientists to study the concept of object permanence as it relates to dogs specifically.
The ability to recognize that objects not in view are still present is something children develop at a young age. Though researchers debate over the age when human infants first develop object permanence -- noted developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, for example, believed that object permanence is developed by 9 months while researchers such as Renee Baillargeon believe it is present much earlier, at 3 to 4 months -- it is considered an essential concept in the healthy development of human cognition.
A 2009 study at the University of Kentucky indicates dogs show signs of understanding object permanence in some conditions. In the study, objects were hidden under buckets placed on a moveable beam. When the beam was rotated 90 degrees, dogs were generally able to correctly identify the location of the hidden object, indicating that they understood that the object still existed even when hidden. When the beam was rotated 180 degrees, however, the dogs were unable to located the object at a rate higher than chance. This is due, according to the researchers, to the fact that the beam, rotated in such a fashion, appeared identical and caused conflicting context cues for the dogs. The fact that the dogs performed poorly on the 180 degree condition is effectively a control for the influence of scent cues and social cues; if the dogs were responding to scent or human expressions and gestures, they would have performed equally well in the 180 degree condition.
Though studies indicate dogs are able to understand object permanence in many tasks, human social cues may interfere with their ability to perform with accuracy. According to the Discover television channel's website, domesticated dogs have learned over time to respond to human expressions and gestures. For example, if a dog watches an object like a ball being placed under a container and is encouraged with eye contact, spoken words or gestures to retrieve it several times -- and then watches while the ball is placed in a different hiding spot -- he will still attempt to retrieve it from the original location about 75 percent of the time. Discover suggested that if you remove the social cues from the experiment, dogs will fail to go to the correct location only 39 percent of the time. If humans are removed from the situation altogether, the failure rate drops lower still. In this example, the dog has learned to respond to social cues rather than his own observations.
If you are curious about whether your dog understands object permanence, the BBC provides a simple test that you can try at home. Though this test is not as comprehensive as the aforementioned studies and is still subject to issues with social interference, it will give you a rough idea about how your dog perceives the world around him. With your dog watching, place a favorite unscented treat or toy underneath an opaque tin or container. Allow your dog to interact with the container, without speaking or encouraging him, and observe his reaction. If your dog flips or moves the container in order to get the object inside, he probably understands object permanence on a basic level.
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