Dogs are shrewder than we think and will ignore us when they think we are lying, a new study has shown. When it comes to the very important matter of food, at least, dogs can recognize deception even in unknown people.
The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tested whether, like humans, dogs could use clues to assess the truthfulness of people. They found that in some cases dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful, something primates and human children can’t do.
“We thought dogs would behave like children under age 5 and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful,” co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. “Maybe they think, ‘This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].’ It’s possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying.”
How do you test this? For dogs, food is always a prime motivator. The researchers carried out a simple experiment with 260 dogs of various breeds, including schnauzers, retrievers, border collies, and terriers, to find food hidden in buckets. According to the researchers, the dogs could follow their own intuition when given misleading instructions about where the food was.
The dogs were presented with two opaque buckets and were taught to follow the advice of an unknown human as to which held the hidden coveted treat. The human would tap the bucket with the treat, looking at the dog and, according to the study, "uttering the sentence ‘look, this is good, this is very good'". By following the advice, the pups got the treat.
Next, the dogs watched as a second unknown human switched the bucket the treat was in, sometimes while another person was present, sometimes when they weren't. Tellingly, half the dogs ignored the human advice on which bucket the treat was in if the person had not been present while the switcheroo took place, meaning the dogs knew the human didn't know which bucket the treat was in. More importantly, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the advice from the humans that pointed to the wrong bucket when they had been there for the switch, indicating the dogs knew the humans were lying to them. The dogs showed they were aware of the manipulation and followed their own visual experience rather than the human communication, which was the opposite of what the researchers had expected.
The researchers noted that in previous studies, both primates and young children were more likely to follow the advice of the liar, despite their own observations of what they knew to be true, suggesting dogs were less trusting of humans giving advice – unknown humans, at least. Whether this test would stand up to pets and their owners is unknown.
This ability shouldn't really come as a surprise, as previous studies have shown dogs are quite the deceivers themselves. In fact, because they have evolved so closely alongside humans not only are they born ready to interact with us, they know perfectly well how to manipulate us too.