Cognitive Daily

A boy and his dog

There’s something about kids and dogs. The phrase “A boy and his dog” brings up quite a range of images: from the sweetness of Norman Rockwell to what sounds like a truly bizarre movie from 1975. Despite not being a dog-person myself (okay, not being a pet-person at all), I find the results from a study that looked at kids and dogs amazing. Marina Pavlova and her colleagues at the University of Tüebingen were curious about how well kids would understand point-light displays. Imagine placing little lights on the major joints of someone’s body (hips, elbows, etc) and then watching them move in a dark room. All you can see are little dots, but you can almost instantly identify a person–you can even name them, if it’s a friend. You can play with these displays here, and we have posted on them before.


The speed with which we recognize these figures could be because we have a lot of exposure to human movement, not just visually, but physically, as well. Pavlova and her team wanted to explore what young kids might see in these displays, and figure out if they needed the displays to be in motion. They created four point-light displays: a human walker, a running dog, a flying bird and a walking dog. The flying bird was viewed from the front, and the rest were viewed from the side. Kids and adults were shown the movies and asked to name the figures, and here are the percent of correct responses.


This is an easy task for adults, and by the time you are 5 years old, this part of your world is the same as adults’—there was not a significant difference between adult and 5 year-old performance. However, the younger kids are having trouble–some of the kids can see that the dots show a moving body, but many cannot. Of these movies, you might think that the human walker would be the easiest; after all, this is who you are. But take a look at how the youngest kids are doing with the walking dog–they are doing better with the dog than with the human!

What does this mean? Pavlova et al. suggest that the littlest kids are having trouble recognizing the walker because it’s the wrong view. Walking adults don’t look like that when you are only 3 feet tall; all the angles are different. If this is true, then we could expect kids recognition to improve dramatically with movies made from their point of view, and I hope someone’s taking a look at this, because it would be fun to see.

As a final note, how much do you need the motion for these displays? In their second experiment, Pavlova and her team showed new groups of adults and 5 year olds comic book versions of the movies. One problem they faced was even figuring out a way to explain the storyboard form to 3- and 4-year-olds. In the end, this problem didn’t matter, because both adults and children could not do this task at all—their guesses were at the level of random chance. This is something you can probably easily believe as you try to identify this form.


Any ideas? I’ll look for guesses in the comments.

Pavlova, M., Krageloh-Mann, I., Sokolov, A. & Birbaumer, N. (2001). Recognition of point-light biological motion displays by young children. Perception, 30, 925-933.


  1. #1 Carl Manaster
    July 11, 2005


  2. #2 Daldianus
    July 11, 2005


  3. #3 Miles
    July 11, 2005

    I’m a bit unclear on whether the subjects were given a choice of pre-defined answers for the experiment – did absolutely no adults mistake the dog for, say, a cat or a horse? Or were they told it was going to be either bird, dog or human?

    As for the last images: … dolphin? Frog?

  4. #4 Alex
    July 11, 2005

    What, a seal? I could swear it was a guy doing break-dancing …

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    July 11, 2005

    Not push-ups, not amphibians. Hint: think Alaskan mammals.

    Miles, there were no pre-defined answers. Adults are that good at this task!

  6. #6 Anne
    July 12, 2005

    I was going to guess crocodile. What it really looks like to me is a mermaid struggling onto shore. But, with my love of pirates, perhaps I’m under the same delusion of sailors of yore: that that manatee is a mermaid.

  7. #7 Greta Munger
    July 12, 2005

    Here’s the movie I made the comic book from, see if motion helps.

    This is from Thomas Shipley’s webcite about his studies on biological motion.

  8. #8 jesslin
    July 12, 2005

    my vote is definitely pushups. it’s nice to know i’m not alone!

  9. #9 Greta Munger
    July 13, 2005

    I can see push-ups (sort of), but it’s not even human…

  10. #10 Kylee Peterson
    July 16, 2005

    Looks like maybe a seal in the stills, but I have very low confidence in that. The movie looks just like a seal.

  11. #11 Tom Richner
    July 20, 2005

    My guess is seal. I also thought about killer whale.

  12. #12 Sotek
    October 17, 2005

    Looks like a swimming man, to me.

  13. #13 Terri Fiorello
    October 17, 2005

    I’ll take a wild stab at this. The first thing that came to mind was…a walrus. I’m right, right?

  14. #14 Terri Fiorello
    October 20, 2005

    I’ll retract my first guess, and try a seal.

  15. #15 Paul Hemeren
    November 1, 2005

    Definitely a kangaroo, hard to make out the species though.

  16. #16 Mandi
    May 3, 2006

    i was going to say a cat stretching out, but if it is an Alaskan animal…

    it doesn’t look like a moose… so polar bear…?

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