By now, you’ve likely encountered at least one “What the Fluff” video, in which owners play a game of Peekaboo that ends with a cruel twist—them ditching out of the game one “surprise” reappearance too early, leaving their pets baffled and creating footage they then upload in hopes that it may go viral. The videos almost uniformly provide a few seconds of canine befuddlement, a moment of joy in an otherwise cold, cruel world:
It’s all fun and games for us, of course, but what is happening in the minds of the dogs? Do they think they’re playing hide and go seek? Or are do they think that Mommy’s dead? We decided to ask some scientists.
Zazie Todd, a psychology Ph.D. and professional dog trainer, told me that the first thing to notice is that “What the Fluff” is a demonstration that dogs exhibit object permanence: the understanding that objects exist even when you can’t see them. Since newborn babies haven’t quite grasped object permanence, “peekaboo” is a source of unending entertainment: Mom keeps disappearing and reappearing. The game loses its thrill once you realize that Mom’s just hiding behind her hands.
Scientists have long known that dogs, unlike newborns, get object permanence. In a 2013 paper, a team of animal cognition scientists led by Thomas Zentall at the University of Kentucky conducted an experiment reminiscent of “What the Fluff.” They showed a dog a bone, hid it behind a screen, swapped it with a bone of a different color, then revealed the new bone. When they made the swap, dogs spent longer looking at the bone than when they didn’t. Because dogs were perplexed by the incongruence, Zentall reasoned that they exhibit object permanence.
Since babies exhibit object permanence by around 1 or 2 years of age, one could say that dogs are at least as smart as a 1- or 2-year-old. But this is just one measure of “intelligence.” Studying how dogs perform on a variety other human cognition tests allows psychologists to make better comparisons between dog and human intelligence. Dogs, for instance, have been shown to understand about 200 words: equivalent to a 3-year-old child. They are also socially advanced: roughly on par with a human adolescent. On the other hand, they miserably fail the mirror test: a task signifying self-recognition that babies master at 18 months. Weighing all these studies together, Stanley Coren, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, reasons that a dog is roughly intellectually equivalent to a 2½ year old child (yes, this is an imperfect and largely silly endeavor).
So how does a dog feel when her owner disappears suddenly? Like most academic psychologists, Zentall is cautious when talking about something so subjective as feelings. “Emotions are clearly something animals are capable of, but it’s really hard to know an underlying emotion from an overt expression,” said Zentall. As he pointed out, it’s even hard to know exactly how another human feels most of the time.
But if we’re going engage in this slippery business of projecting human emotions onto animals, the least we can do is make the comparison as close as possible. To understand how dogs might feel when Mommy disappears behind a blanket, our best approximation might be to do the same thing to a cohort of 2½-year-old babies. Fortunately, the internet has already done the experiment for us … extensively. And are the babies traumatized? Meh, they’ll get over it.