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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:

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
© Petra Jahn

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.

Welpe blaue becher
© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos

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.

© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos

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?

© Vivien Venzke/Kosmos


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

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


Show list of references
  • Lampe, M.; Bräuer, J.; Kaminski, J.; Virányi, Z.: The effects of domestication and ontogeny on cognition in dogs and wolves. Scientific Reports (2017) [Link]
  • Bräuer, J.; Silva, K.; Schweinberger, S. R.: Communicating canine and human emotions: Commentary on Kujala on Canine Emotions. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling (2017) [Link]
  • Tempelmann, S., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2014). Do Domestic Dogs Learn Words Based on Humans’ Referential Behaviour. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e91014.
  • Hertel, A., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2014). Generalize or Personalize-Do Dogs Transfer an Acquired Rule to Novel Situations and Persons?. PLoS ONE, 9(7).
  • Nitzschner, M.,Kaminski, J., Melis, A., & Tomasello, M. (2014). Side matters: potential mechanisms underlying dogs' performance in a social eavesdropping paradigm. Animal Behaviour, 90, 263-271. [pdf]
  • Rossano, F., Nitzschner, M., & Tomasello, M. (2014). Domestic dogs and puppies can use human voice direction referentially. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1785), 20133201.[pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Pitsch, A., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Dogs steal in the dark. Animal cognition, 16(3), 385-394. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., & Nitzschner, M. (2013). Do dogs get the point? A review of dog–human communication ability. Learning and Motivation, 44(4), 294-302. [pdf]
  • Scheider, L., Kaminski, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Do domestic dogs interpret pointing as a command?. Animal cognition, 16(3), 361-372. [pdf]
  • Bräuer, J., Bös, M., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) coordinate their actions in a problem-solving task. Animal cognition, 16(2), 273-285. [pdf]
  • Bräuer, J., Keckeisen, M., Pitsch, A., Kaminski, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Domestic dogs conceal auditory but not visual information from others. Animal cognition, 16(3), 351-359. [pdf]
  • Grassmann, S., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). How two word-trained dogs integrate pointing and naming. Animal cognition, 15(4), 657-665. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Schulz, L., & Tomasello, M. (2012). How dogs know when communication is intended for them. Developmental science, 15(2), 222-232. [pdf]
  • Nitzschner, M., Melis, A. P., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs (Canis familiaris) evaluate humans on the basis of direct experiences only. PloS one, 7(10), e46880. [pdf]
  • Scheider, L., Grassmann, S., Kaminski, J., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Domestic dogs use contextual information and tone of voice when following a human pointing gesture. PloS one, 6(7), e21676. [pdf]
  • Mersmann, D., Tomasello, M., Call, J., Kaminski, J., & Taborsky, M. (2011). Simple mechanisms can explain social learning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Ethology, 117(8), 675-690. [pdf]
  • Pettersson, H., Kaminski, J., Herrmann, E., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Understanding of human communicative motives in domestic dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 133(3), 235-245. [pdf]
  • Bräuer, J., & Call, J. (2011). The magic cup: Great apes and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) individuate objects according to their properties. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 125(3), 353. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Neumann, M., Bräuer, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Dogs,(Canis familiaris), communicate with humans to request but not to inform. Animal Behaviour, 82(4), 651-658. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Nitzschner, M., Wobber, V., Tennie, C., Bräuer, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Do dogs distinguish rational from irrational acts?. Animal Behaviour, 81(1), 195-203. [pdf]
  • Hare, B., Rosati, A., Kaminski, J., Bräuer, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2010). The domestication hypothesis for dogs' skills with human communication: a response to and. Animal Behaviour, 79(2), e1-e6. [pdf]
  • Tennie, C., Glabsch, E., Tempelmann, S., Bräuer, J., Kaminski, J., & Call, J. (2009). Dogs,( Canis familiaris), fail to copy intransitive actions in third-party contextual imitation tasks. Animal Behaviour, 77(6), 1491-1499. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Bräuer, J., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. (2009). Domestic dogs are sensitive to a human's perspective. Behaviour 146, 979-998. [pdf]
  • Rooijakkers, E. F., Kaminski, J., & Call, J. (2009). Comparing dogs and great apes in their ability to visually track object transpositions. Animal cognition, 12(6), 789-796. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Tempelmann, S., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Domestic dogs comprehend human communication with iconic signs. Developmental science, 12(6), 831-837. [pdf]
  • Kaminski, J., Fischer, J., & Call, J. (2008). Prospective object search in dogs: mixed evidence for knowledge of What and Where. Animal cognition, 11(2), 367-371. [pdf]
  • Riedel, J., Schumann, K., Kaminski, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). The early ontogeny of human–dog communication. Animal Behaviour, 75(3), 1003-1014. [pdf]
  • Bräuer, J., Kaminski, J., Riedel, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Making inferences about the location of hidden food: social dog, causal ape. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(1), 38. [pdf]
  • Hare, B., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Human-like social skills in dogs?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(9), 439-444. [pdf]
  • Bräuer, J., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2004). Visual perspective taking in dogs (Canis familiaris) in the presence of barriers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 88(3), 299-317. [pdf]

  • Books

  • Kaminski, J., & Brauer, J. (2011). So klug ist Ihr Hund, Kosmos.
  • Kaminski, J., & Brauer, J. (2006). Der kluge Hund: Wie Sie ihn verstehen können, Rowohlt.