We trust our dogs, don’t we? Our loyal companions. Man’s best friend? Well, if a 2017 study in animal behavior is to be believed, our butter-wouldn’t-melt-expression-wearing buddies are actually capable of “tactical deception” (or “lying,” in layman’s terms!).
The study’s Swiss animal behaviorists published their findings in “Animal Cognition,” and their work focused around the burning question: do dogs have the ability to use deception to get what they want from humans?
The study held two “test days” to monitor the behavior of 27 willing puppy participants of different breeds and ages (don’t worry, the study assures that “informed consent was obtained from the dog owners”—although we’re willing to bet the plethora of dog treats was enough to tempt the four-legged furries).
On day one, study leaders trained the dogs to distinguish two humans according to how readily they offered food. The “cooperative” human handed out a dog treat with no complications; the “competitive” human presented the treat, but quickly pocketed it.
Unsurprisingly, test day one revealed that the pups preferred the “cooperative” human.
On day two, the dogs were taught how to lead a human to food, following the instruction “Show me the food.” Favorite food and non-preferred food were placed in two identical boxes alongside a third, empty box. The well-trained dogs led their humans, and if they ended up at a box full of food, the “cooperative” partners (very cooperatively indeed) rewarded their dogs with the tasty snack.
“Competitive” partners, on the other hand, kept the food for themselves, although your guess is as good as ours as to whether or not they ate it.
“On the first test day, the dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred food box more often than expected by chance and more often than the competitive partner,” the study authors wrote. “On the second day, they even led the competitive partner less often to the preferred food than expected by chance,” they continued, “and more often to the empty box than the cooperative partner.”
Over half of the savvy participant pups realized that leading their “competitive” human to the box of preferred food would likely result in an empty stomach and a whirlwind of disappointment. So what did they do? They lied.
“These results,” the study authors shared, “show that dogs distinguished between the cooperative and the competitive partner, and indicate the flexibility of dogs to adjust their behavior.” Put down your coffee mug, stare your sweet pooch directly in the eyes, and absorb the ghastly reality: dogs, the study concluded, are “tactical deceivers.”
The lead author of the study, Marianne Heberlein, spoke to Broadly. “A dog still is a loyal, lovely companion,” she reassured. “However, the study shows that dogs … can manipulate humans to reach their goal.”
“Be careful and precise in rewarding your dog,” she advised.
Broadly interviewed Elisha Stynchula, the owner of “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs in Los Angeles. “Although it is a small sample and only reflects a contrived scenario,” she offered, “my takeaway is not that dogs lie and deceive, but rather it confirms that dogs are very intelligent animals. They are very motivated to do what benefits them the most.”
“That’s one of the reasons they are so trainable.”
With that sympathetic synopsis, it’s easy to have great respect for our industrious companions. They’re smart. Perhaps smarter than we ever thought. And they’re excellent at getting what they want!