Dogs May Not Always Be Telling You the Truth

A new study published in Animal Cognition found that even our sweet furbabies are capable of lying to our faces.

Researchers out of Switzerland were interested in understanding if dogs have the ability to use deception to get what they want from humans. First, they trained the dogs (participants were 27 dogs of different breeds between the ages 1.5 and 14 years) to distinguish between two human partners by their generosity with food. The first partner was deemed “cooperative” because she promptly handed the dog a treat. The other partner was deemed “competitive” because she would present the treat to the dog and then pocket it. Later, tests revealed the dog preferred the cooperative partner.

Next, the dogs were taught how to lead a person to food. They watched as sausages (their favorite treat) and dog biscuits were placed in two identical boxes, which were then set on the ground with a third, empty box. During the test, the dogs were asked to “Show me the food,” during which they lead their human partner to one of the boxes on the ground. They were tested twice with the cooperative partner and twice with the competitive partner. While the cooperative partners rewarded the dogs with whatever was in the box, if it wasn’t empty, the competitive partners kept their findings.

“Comparing the dogs’ behavior in the presence of the cooperative and the competitive partner, researchers found an interaction between test day and partner’s role in leading them to the food box containing the preferred food.” The study’s authors write, “On both test days, the dogs were more likely to lead the cooperative partner than the competitive partner to the box containing the preferred food, and this effect was stronger on the second test day than on the first.”

In other words, more than half of the dogs realized taking the competitive person to the box of sausages would not benefit them in the least, so they lied when asked to show her the food. In fact, two dogs named Arwen and Nelson were so smart, they always led the cooperative person, never the competitive person, to the sausages. Baxter, Cicca, Barni, and Caju also never led the competitive partner to the sausages, although they were less consistent with the cooperative partner.

These results, the authors write, show that dogs are capable of adjusting their behavior and using tactical deception; they understand how their actions affect the behavior of others.

Elisha Stynchula is a certified dog trainer and owner of “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs in Los Angeles. She says the study really makes a person think about a dog’s intentions. “Although it is a small sample and only reflects a contrived scenario,” she says, “my takeaway is not that dogs lie and deceive, but rather it confirms that dogs are very intelligent animals. Dogs are very motivated to do what benefits them the most. That’s one of the reasons they are so trainable.”

The idea that dogs are capable of manipulating a situation to get what they want isn’t unheard of. Stynchula offers this anecdote: “In my household, my dog will try and tell my husband I didn’t feed him dinner if my husband comes home after I fed the dog. He’s a smart dog and loves food, so he will try to get two dinners if he can.”

The perception of the study’s scenario, she continues, is that the dog is lying. But “from the dog’s point of view, he is intelligently manipulating the scenario to his benefit.”

The question is: Should dog owners start to side eye their pets a little more? Marianne Heberlein, the lead author on the study, suggests maybe so. “A dog still is a loyal, lovely companion,” she says, “however, the study shows that dogs, like other animals, try to optimize their own profit. They seem to know what they want and also can manipulate humans to reach their goal.” She recommends owners “be careful and precise in rewarding your dog” as it may have faked a behavior just to get a reward.

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