Deceptive Dogs Deceiving

Deceptive Dogs Deceiving

We all think our dogs are not only truthful but devoted and obedient too. However, a recent study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland has been looking at dog's ability to deceive us silly humans. Marianne Heberlein, a student in dog cognition wanted to test our pet’s ability to manipulate and deceive their owners, in order to get what they want.

The idea came to Marianne after watching her own dogs. One of them occasionally pretends to see something in the garden to trick the other into relieving their prime sleeping spot! She said, “This sort of thing happens quite often, but it is not well studied.”

So, this led to Heberlein’s inquest into whether dogs deceive humans too. Her colleagues paired various dogs with two human partners: one would give the dog treats, the other would restrain from doing so.

After the dogs understood which of the two individuals was cooperative and which was competitive, the dogs were then given the opportunity to lead each partner to one of three boxes containing either a sausage, a dry dog biscuit or nothing at all.

After each trial, they would then lead their owner to one of the boxes and the owner would allow them to eat what’s inside. Obviously, this then gave the dog the incentive to deceive the partner who wouldn’t relinquish the treats by taking them to the empty box, then leading the more generous owner to the box containing the treat.

Over two days of testing, the dogs would lead the more cooperative partner to the box containing the sausage more often than expected, and more often than with the more competitive partner there. They also led the competitive partner to the box containing the sausage less often than expected, and to the empty box more often than they led the cooperative partner there.

Heberlein commented on this saying, “They showed an impressive flexibility in behaviour, they’re not just sticking to a strict rule, but thinking about what different options they have.”

She was also surprised how quickly a portion of the dogs figured out this optimum behaviour. A few of the trial dogs led the competitive partner to the empty box from the very first trial and therefore always managed to acquire the most treats. She said, “They were really quickly able to differentiate between the two partners. There was no additional learning step needed”; other animals often need dozens of repetitions to learn similar lessons – even our closest genetic match – the monkey.

This experiment fuels the ongoing debate about the cognitive abilities of dogs and other animals share with humans, says Daphna Buchsbaum, a specialist in dog cognition at the University of Toronto. She asks the question, ‘Can dogs understand people’s mental state and motivations, and what causes people’s behaviour?’ The question remains though whether dogs are flexible enough to deceive in other contexts – ‘If they can, I’d say it was evidence of very sophisticated social reasoning’ says Buchsbaum.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.  

George Welsby

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