We tell our kids that it’s not good to lie, but those of us who have dogs have probably told them a few white lies every now and again.
I know I’ve promised my dog treats for a trick when I really had no food at all. I’d hold my fist shut and ask if he wanted a treat. If he did, he had to sit, lay, stay, walk (on two legs), or do some other command. Thankfully, he was a good sport and went along with it, even though new research suggests that he probably knew I was lying about the treat the whole time.
A study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, wanted to determine if dogs could tell when people were being dishonest with them.
As it turns out, dogs may be a lot smarter than we thought.
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“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. 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,” co-author Ludwig Huber said in an interview with New Scientist.
The research was conducted by using food as a motivator. They used 260 dogs of various breeds, such as schnauzers, retrievers, border collies, and terriers, and had the dogs find food that had been hidden in buckets.
The research suggested that dogs could follow clues and assess the situation to find the hidden food, even when given misleading or deceitful instructions about where the food was.
To begin, a human, who the dog was unfamiliar with, would tab the bucket with the treat in it while looking at the dog and say, “look, this is good, this is very good.” When the dogs followed the human’s advice and went to that bucket, they would be rewarded with the treat.
After that, the dog would witness a second human, who they didn’t know, switch the bucket with the treat. Sometimes the first human would be there to watch the switch and sometimes they wouldn’t. They were then told which bucket had the treat, but the advice from the human was wrong. While half the dogs listened to the humans and chose the bucket without the treat, half of the dogs ignored the humans and chose the bucket that they saw the treat go in.
What’s even more interesting, is that two-thirds of the dogs ignored the humans that pointed to the wrong bucket when that human had been there for the switch. This suggests that the dogs knew and believed that the humans were lying or being deceitful to them.
According to New Scientist, previous research conducted on primates and young children found that both groups were likely to follow the advice of the liar, rather than rely on their own instincts.
It seems that dogs are less trusting of humans, and maybe they have good reason to be. Then again, maybe it’s because dogs can be deceptive too – so they know what to look out for.
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