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We may patronizingly praise and fawn over our clever pooches when they correctly engage in that particularly tasking game of fetch, but dogs have got more going on in their little noggins than we give them credit for. For example, we now know that our canine companions can process human speech in a similar way to how we do, display jealousy, and even discriminate between some of our emotional expressions. Now, it turns out that these surprisingly perceptive animals can quickly tell a fibber from a square shooter. And once they’ve decided how reliable someone is, they adjust their behavior accordingly. These novel findings have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

We’ve known for some time that dogs are particularly sensitive to pointing; it’s not difficult to get them to follow your finger. But what is also evident is that they appear to be so responsive to our cues that they will even attempt to use our misleading signals and often struggle to not follow these gestures. For example, one study demonstrated that dogs will choose a smaller bowl of food if their owner misled them by indicating a preference for that particular plate. That being said, it is apparent that dogs don’t follow pointing gestures automatically. What is less clear, however, is how dogs evaluate the human giving these gestures and use this perceived reliability to adjust their behavior.  

To find out more, scientists from Kyoto University, Japan, rounded up 34 dogs and their owners and subjected them to a series of tests designed to determine how good they are at figuring out trustworthiness. The experimental design involved presenting dogs with two opaque containers, one that was empty and the other of which contained food. Both were made to smell the same so that the dogs couldn’t cheat and just use their noses.

In round one, participants accurately pointed at the container that had food hidden inside before letting the dog go and choose which one to explore. In round two, the experimenter misled the dog and pointed at the empty container after revealing the contents of both of them. For the final round, the experimenter repeated what they did in round one. But rather than blindly following their pointing gesture, the researchers found that the dogs no longer responded to the cue. Just to make sure that this was not the result of decreased motivation, the scientists repeated the experiment with novel experimenters and found the same.

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that dogs are able to make inferences about a person’s reliability based on experience, and can use this to change their behavior and predict what someone will do in future situations.

“Dogs have more sophisticated social intelligence than we thought,” lead author Akiko Takaoka told the BBC. “This social intelligence evolved selectively in their long life history with humans.”

To take this work further, Takaoka would like to start examining closely related species, such as wolves, which will hopefully shed light on how domestication has affected the social intelligence of dogs.  

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