New studies shows dogs are smarter than "we" thought. We, being scientists, who are now finally catching up to what the rest of us dog owners have known all along. Dog owners have long maintained that their pooches have a lot more between their furry ears than we think. Research is adding to the growing evidence, and a provocative new experiment has indicated that dogs can do something for which only humans, including infants, had shown a facility — deciding how to imitate a behaviour based on the specific circumstances in which the action takes place. "The fact that the dogs imitate selectively, depending on the situation — that has not been shown before," said Friederike Range, of the University of Vienna, who led the study. "That's something completely new." The findings come amid a flurry of research that is revealing surprisingly complex abilities among dogs, chimps, birds and many other animals long dismissed as having little intellectual or emotional life. "Every day, we're discovering surprises about animals and finding out animals are far more intelligent and far more emotional than we previously thought," said Marc Bekoff, an animal behaviourist who recently retired from the University of Colorado. The study was inspired by research with human infants. Fourteen-month-olds will imitate an adult turning on a light with her forehead only if they see her doing it with her hands free. If the adult is clutching a blanket, infants will use their hands, presumably because they can reason that the adult resorted to using her forehead because she had no choice. To determine whether an animal could respond similarly, Ms Range and her colleagues trained Guinness, a female border collie, to push a wooden rod with her paw to get a treat. A dog generally does not use its paws to do tasks, preferring to use its mouth. So the key question was whether dogs that watched Guinness would decide how to get the treat, depending on the circumstances. After making sure the owners could not influence their pets' behaviour, researchers tested three groups of dogs. The first 14, representing a variety of breeds, did not watch Guinness. When taught how to use the rod, about 85 per cent pushed it with their mouth, confirming that is how dogs naturally like to do things. The second group of 21 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly push the rod with her paw while holding a ball in her mouth. In that group, most of the dogs — about 80 per cent — used their mouth, imitating the action but not the exact method Guinness had used. That suggested the dogs, like the children, decided Guinness was using her paw only because she had no choice. The third group of 19 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly use a paw on the rod with her mouth free. Most of those dogs — 83 per cent — imitated her behaviour exactly, using their paws and not their mouths. That suggested they concluded there must be some good reason to act against their instincts and do it like Guinness. "The behaviour was very similar to the children who were tested in the original experiment," said Zsofia Viranyi, of Eotvos University in Budapest, who helped conduct the experiment, published in the journal Current Biology. "Whether they imitate or not depends on the context. It's not automatic, insightless copying. It's more sophisticated. There's a kind of inferential process going on. " Ms Viranyi and her colleagues said more research was needed to confirm the results and to explore what the findings say about the canine brain. Ms Range said: "Do they use the same cognitive process as the infant? Or is it something different? We have no way of knowing that right now." The findings stunned many researchers. "What's surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans," said Brian Hare, who studies dogs at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "Once again, it ends up dogs are smarter than scientists thought." The experiment suggests that dogs can put themselves inside the head of another dog — and perhaps people — to make relatively complex decisions. "This suggests they can actually think about your intention," Mr Hare said. "They can look for explanations of your behaviour and make inferences about what you are thinking." Others go even further, suggesting the findings indicate that dogs have a sense of awareness. "It really shows a higher level of consciousness," said Stanley Coren, of the University of British Columbia, who studies how dogs think. "This takes a real degree of consciousness." The findings could be yet another example of the well-documented ability of dogs to interpret subtle physical cues that stem from their long, close relationship with humans, several researchers say.