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Can dogs lie to their owners? Study shows dogs deceive to achieve!

Golden Retriever smiling sat on grass

Research now shows dogs are capable of deception.

© Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered if your sweet, loyal dog can lie? A study on dog behaviour suggests our canine companions are not as innocent as they’d have us believe…

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 09/02/2021, 17:00

As dog owners, we like to think of our dogs as loving cuddle monsters, incapable of deception of any kind. Having said that, we all know that dogs are driven by their stomachs the majority of the time. And let’s face it; we’ve all seen that guilty look on our dog’s face when we walk back into a room to find they’ve eaten the snack we left out, the hurried burying of a treat away from the prying eyes of other dogs, and the skill with which your dog transforms into a night-time bed ninja, wiggling in to the comfiest spot before you’ve even realised what’s happened!

With all the best intentions, positive reinforcement and training your dog in good manners, as dog lovers, we readily accept there are certain things we learn to live with. Deep down, I doubt anyone reading this would have it any other way! It’s what makes their company so amusing and keeps us on our toes as dog owners.

If you feel your dog’s stomach may be getting the better of their good manners, you can check out our tips on stopping your dog begging.

Are dogs capable of lying?

Scientific research in recent years has shown that dogs possess a range of interesting cognitive abilities, extending their perception and behaviour far beyond their skills in setting us up for snacks.

A study carried out in 2016 at the University of Lincoln, found that dogs are able to recognise human emotion by combining information from different senses, including images and sounds. The study demonstrated that dogs are able to form mental abstractions of positive and negative emotional states, in a way that is not driven by learned behaviour, an incredible ability never before seen outside of humans.

Further research also showed that dogs are able to distinguish between a human co-operator and a human deceiver in a two-choice task. The scientists conducting this study found they are capable of requesting objects from humans, using their gaze to indicate the location of the item.

And their amazing abilities don’t end there!

Have you ever noticed your dog looking adoringly at you to get what they want?

If you have, there’s actually science behind the stare. Research at the University of Portsmouth, suggests this is not only possible for dogs, it’s actually intentional! Generations of interaction with dog owners, have taught our canine companions that this look gets them what they want.

Does your dog often give you their best ‘puppy eyes’? Read here to find out more about how and why they do this.

To top all these cognitive abilities, research by a team of scientists lead by Marianne Heberlein at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has shown that dogs are capable of using deception to get what they want.

New study finds dogs can, in fact, lie!

Heberlein’s study, published in the Animal Cognition journal in 2017, found that dogs are able to mislead humans, and in doing so engage in the art of tactical deception.

The 27 dogs that participated, of different breeds and ranging in age from 1.5 to 14-years-old, demonstrated an ability to inhibit their own behaviour in searching for food they preferred, in the presence of a human they knew to be competitive. They worked out that they would then receive the food they wanted (usually a piece of sausage) at a later time. Clever, right?

How did the study work?

The study, which took place in a familiar space to the dogs, offered the 27 participants a three-way choice task. Each dog owner was assigned a “cooperative” role, giving their dog the food items. Of the other two people participating, one was “cooperative” to the dogs, whilst the other was assigned a “competitive” role, and as such kept the food for themselves.

The dogs had the option of leading one of these partners to three potential food locations, where the food was held in boxes, having worked to associate the cue “show me the food” with the dog moving towards their preferred food choice. One box contained some sausage, the second one dry dog food, and the third was empty.

If the dogs lead the cooperative partner to a box containing food, they would be given it immediately. If they lead the competitive partner to it, the food would be pocketed and the dog would receive nothing. After each session, they would then repeat the process with their owner, who would always give them the food if led to the right box.

Cooperative or competitive: how did the dogs react?  

On both test days, the dogs were more likely to lead the cooperative partner to their food box of choice, with stronger reactions on the second day. Two dogs, Arwen and Nelson, always led the cooperative partner to the preferred food, and always led the competitive partner to an empty box or to the one holding food they didn’t want. Baxter and Cicca were less consistent with the cooperative partner responses, though they always led competitive partners away from their preferred choice of box. This really is very smart. The dogs had worked out that by leading the competitive person to the wrong box, they would later be rewarded with the food they really wanted. Later tests even showed the dogs preferred cooperative humans.

Does this mean we’re in for years of manipulation as dog owners?

Backed by previous research into the cognitive abilities of dogs, Marianne Heberlein and her team of scientists wanted to explore the possibility that dogs can deceive humans. The study did demonstrate an understanding of how to get the food they wanted, by leading those who wouldn't feed them away from it. This suggests dogs use reasoning. Whether or not this can be generalised to other situations, remains to be seen. We think the motive for deception in this study is adorable… the dogs just wanted the sausage for themselves. Loyal, lovable, and super smart, we wouldn’t have them any other way.

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