When humans use the term “meta” — as in “Dude, that’s so meta” — we’re usually referring to a perspective that’s so self-referential and so outside itself, it makes our heads feel like the expanding brain meme. Some dogs have “meta” experiences as well, show scientists in a new Learning and Behavior paper. In the study, they suggest that some pups can not only know a thing but also know that they know it. Their data can be interpreted as evidence of metacognition, an ability usually only displayed by primates.

The research team from the DogStudies lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History showed in the study that some dogs are aware when they don’t have enough information to solve a problem, like finding food. In much the same way that we will Google “What is metacognition?” when reading a complicated article about metacognition, the dogs in the study looked for additional clues about the whereabouts of food when they were presented with incomplete information about where it was hidden in the experimental setup.

metacognition dog experiment
The experimental setup. In some trials, the dog saw which fence the reward was hidden behind; in others, it did not.

In the experiments, researchers put food or toys behind either of two fences for the dogs to find. In some instances, the dogs watched where the reward was placed; in others, they couldn’t see. The team expected that the dogs who didn’t see where the reward was placed would peek behind both fences, showing that they knew that they didn’t know. In contrast, dogs who did see where the reward was placed would go straight for it, showing that they knew that they knew.

The header video, in which a dog makes a beeline for the reward after watching the researcher put it behind one fence, shows the latter situation. In this instance, the dog had to wait a few moments before setting out to find the reward (a variation on the experiment, explained further below). This dog, the researchers suggest, knows that it doesn’t need to find more information about the reward’s whereabouts.

Through experiments with 48 dogs of various breeds and ages, the researchers found some evidence that dogs have metacognitive abilities, though they couldn’t definitively say that for all dogs. While dogs generally checked for clues more often when they didn’t see where the reward was hidden and, on average, chose the correct fence in 93 percent of the trials, their performance wavered as the experimental conditions changed.

sausage for dogs
A type of dog sausage called Hundewürstchen was used to test whether dogs would be better at the task when a "high-quality" reward was involved.

In one variation, the experimenters hid either high-quality food (Hundewürstchen, a type of sausage for dogs) or low-quality food (dry dog pellets) to see whether dogs would be better at the task if the reward was better. There wasn’t much of a difference — the dogs occasionally went to the wrong fence anyway — which the researchers explain was due to the dogs being too excited about finding the reward to consider what they already knew.

In a “time delay” variation, the dogs had to wait a few moments after seeing where the reward was hidden before setting out to find it. They were generally better at finding the reward when the time delay was shorter, but they didn’t look more often when the delay was longer. In other words, they didn’t work extra-hard when the task was harder than usual, unlike apes in previous experiments, suggesting that sometimes they aren’t so meta, after all.

“Thus, dogs did not search for extra information when they were uncertain, which might suggest that they did not have access to their own knowledge in that situation,” write the researchers.

So: Some dogs can be pretty high-level thinkers — as smart as some primates, at least in this regard — but they can be pretty dumb, too. Scientists think that an individual animal’s ability to assess what they know is an asset to survival, since it helps them make sense of murky situations and avoid wasting time or effort on situations that will be too hard to figure out. It isn’t clear yet which lucky animals gained this crucial ability over evolutionary time.

“It is essential for survival to evaluate ambiguous information,” write the researchers. “Therefore, it is clearly advantageous to differentiate between certain and uncertain situations, paying the cost of seeking extra information only when it is really necessary.”

Photos via DogStudies. Belger & Bräuer, 2018. Metacognition in dogs: Do dogs know they could be wrong? Learning & Behavior. DOI: 10.3758/s13420-018-0367-5, Amazon, Unsplash / Jae Lee