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Research with dogs

A major research goal of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, is to answer questions about the evolutionary history of a broad range of biological and cultural phenomena with cutting-edge analytical and bioinformatics methods. Among other topics the evolution of different cognitive processes will be investigated. logo dog studies

For a number of reasons, the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is a very interesting model for investigating different questions regarding the evolution of cognitive abilities. The fact that dogs have been living with humans for at least 15.000 years may have led to the selection of cognitive abilities by humans or even the co-evolution of dogs’ cognitive abilities with those of humans. We know from different studies that dogs are sensitive to the attentional state of humans. We also know that dogs understand communicative cues. This ability has not been found in nonhuman primates and wolves.

Our research with dogs focuses on the following topics:

Human-dog communication

The main question is how flexible dogs' understanding of human communication is. In a typical set-up we hide food from a dog in one of several containers and then indicate to the dog where the food is by using a cue (e.g. a pointing gesture). Dogs are more skillful in making use of human pointing gestures than wolves and even chimpanzees are. Conversely, dogs are able to indicate to humans where their toys are hidden even without special training. kommunikation
© Theresa Epperlein

Visual perspective taking

The main question is whether dogs are sensitive to what others can and cannot see. In our tests the dogs are able to see an object that the human - who is present - cannot see because the object is occluded by a barrier from the human’s view. We are interested whether dogs take advantage of this additional information. It turned out, for instance, that dogs eat forbidden food more frequently when the human cannot see them.
© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos

Social learning

The main question is whether and how dogs learn from other dogs or humans. In our studies we allow dogs to observe other dogs or humans solving problems before they themselves are presented with the same problem.
© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos

Metacognitive abilities

The main question is whether dogs have access to their own perceptual and knowledge states. Here, the focus is not on what dogs understand about others, but on what dogs know about themselves. The question is, for example, whether they are aware of what they have seen in the past.
© Josepha Erlacher

Physical Cognition

Our main question is how dogs perceive and understand the environment which surrounds them. What do dogs know about physical relations, for instance about the fact that objects continue to exist after they have disappeared from the dog’s view?
© Katharina Schulte


In our studies concerning cooperation, we investigate whether dogs cooperate both with each other and with other species, such as humans. Do dogs coordinate those activities which they cannotdo alone? Are they aware of their partners' role during this process? Is there a motivation to help humans? Do they recognise, that the human needs help, to achieve a goal.
© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos

Smell and cognition

Here we investigate how dogs perceive the world with their excellent olfactory sense and what they understand about it. Do they, for example, have a representation of something or someone when they smell something? The central question is how dogs` excellent olfactory sense and their cognitive skills are linked together. This project is supported by the Albert-Heim-Stiftung. Smell and cognition
© DogStudies

Dog research at the Max Planck Institute is strictly observational. There is no invasive research of any kind. We give the dogs various tasks to solve and observe how they interact with their environment, other dogs or a human. There is always a reward, usually a treat or a toy.

Juliane Bräuer, dog studies

Our publications on the topic of Dog Cognition

    Journal Publications

  • Henschel, M., Winters, J., Müller, T.F. & Bräuer, J. (2020). Effect of shared information and owner behavior on showing in dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition. [DOI]
  • Bräuer, J., Hanus, D., Pika, S. Gray, R., Uomini, N. (2020). Old and New Approaches to Animal Cognition: There Is Not “One Cognition”. Journal of Intelligence, 8(3), 28. [DOI]
  • Silva, K., Bräuer, J., de Sousa, L. et al. (2020). An attempt to test whether dogs (Canis familiaris) show increased preference towards humans who match their behaviour. Journal of Ethololgy, 38, 223–232. [DOI]
  • Bräuer, J. & Vidal Orga, B. (in press). Why wolves became dogs: interdisciplinary questions on domestication. Edited volume of "Dogs, Past and Present - an Interdisciplinary Perspective" published by Archaeopress Archaeology. [DOI]
  • Bräuer, J., Stenglein, K. & Amici, F. (2019). Dogs (Canis familiaris) and wolves (Canis lupus) coordinate with conspecifics in a social dilemma. Journal of Comparative Psychology Advance online publication, 134(2), 211–221. [DOI]
  • Amici, F., Waterman, J., Kellermann, C. M., Karimullah, K., & Bräuer, J. (2019). The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 16414. [DOI]
  • Belger, J. & Bräuer, J. (2018). Metacognition in dogs: Do dogs know they could be wrong? Journal of Learning & Behaviour 46(4), 398–413. [DOI]
  • Bräuer, J., & Amici, F. (2018). Fake or not: Two prerequisites for jealousy. Commentary on Cook et al. on dog jealousy. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 22(18). (OA) [Link]
  • Bräuer, J., & Belger, J. (2018). A ball is not a Kong: Odor representation and search behavior in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different education. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 132(2), 189-199. [DOI]
  • Lampe, M., Bräuer, J., Kaminski, J. & Virányi, Z. (2017). The effects of domestication and ontogeny on cognition in dogs and wolves. Scientific Reports, 7(11690). [DOI]
  • Bräuer, J., Silva, K. & Schweinberger, S. R. (2017). Communicating canine and human emotions: Commentary on Kujala on Canine Emotions. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 14(7). (OA) [Link]
  • Bräuer, J. (2015). I do not understand but I care: the prosocial dog. Interaction Studies, 16 (3), 254–263. [DOI]

  • Books / Book chapters

  • Bräuer, J. & Kaminski, J. (2020). Was Hunde wissen. Berlin, Heidelberg. Springer Spektrum [Link]
  • Bräuer, J. (2014). Klüger als wir denken. Berlin, Heidelberg. Springer Spektrum [Link]
  • Bräuer, J. (2014). What dogs understand about others. In: J. Kaminski & S. Mashall Pescini (eds) The Social Dog: behaviour and Cognition, Elsevier publishers. [Link]