The Attribution of Navigational- and Goal-Directed Agency in Dogs (Canis familiaris) and Human Toddlers (Homo sapiens)

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Both human infants and nonhuman primates can recognize unfamiliar entities as instrumental agents ascribing to them goals and efficiency of goal-pursuit. This competence relies on movement cues indicating distal sensitivity to the environment and choice of efficient goal-approach. Although dogs’ evolved sensitivity to social cues allow them to recognize humans as communicative agents, it remains unclear whether they have also evolved a basic concept of instrumental agency. We used a preferential object-choice procedure to test whether adult pet dogs and human toddlers can identify unfamiliar entities as agents based on different types of movement cues that specify different levels of agency. In the navigational agency condition, dogs preferentially chose an object that modified its pathway to avoid collision with obstacles over another object showing no evidence of distal sensitivity (regularly bumping into obstacles). However, in the goal-efficiency condition where neither object collided with obstacles as it navigated toward a distal target, but only 1 of them exhibited efficient goal-approach as well, toddlers, but not dogs, showed a preference toward the efficient goal-directed agent. These findings indicate that dogs possess a limited concept of environmentally sensitive navigational agency that they attribute to self-propelled entities capable of modifying their movement to avoid colliding with obstacles. Toddlers, in contrast, demonstrated clear sensitivity to cues of efficient variability of goal-approach as the basis for differentiating, attributing, and showing preference for goal-directed instrumental agency.

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