Does your dog know when you are lying? – American Kennel Club
Dog owners know that dogs are great judges of character. If your dog loves someone, you will probably love them too. But what about reliability? Can dogs detect sincerity or can you lie to them easily? If you’ve ever faked your dog by pretending to toss his toy or an imaginary treat into your hand, you might think your dog will believe anything. But a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that dogs could be capable lie detectors.
Choose a bucket
To explore lie detection in dogs, researchers from the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna asked 260 purebred dogs of different breeds to choose between two opaque buckets. Although both buckets were sprinkled with food to make them smell equally bad, only one bucket contained a piece of food. The odds of getting the food would be fifty-fifty, but the dogs weren’t choosing blindly.
Someone unknown to the dog, the communicator, would tell the dogs which bucket to choose. They would squat by a bucket, pick it up and look back and forth between the dog and the bucket, saying, “Look, that’s good, that’s very good. During the training phase of the experiment, they always pointed to the correct bucket to teach the dog the procedure.
After three practice trials, it was time to test the dogs. But now the communicator has misled the dogs about the location of the food by pointing to the empty bucket. This was done with the help of a second person unknown to the dog, the hider. The hider would place the food in the first bucket in full view of the communicator and the dog. Then they moved the food to the second bucket. Sometimes they would move the food in full view of the dog and the communicator, and sometimes they would move the food while the communicator was out of the room so that only the dog could see. Then, in both situations, the communicator would indicate the bucket empty and the dog was free to choose.
Dogs trust their own eyes
The research team expected the dogs to follow the communicator’s cues more often when the communicator saw the switch than when the communicator was out of the room. This is what primates and children under five do. Rather than following their own observations, they follow the liar’s advice. However, to the surprise of the experimenters, the dogs did the opposite.
About half of the dogs followed the communicator’s advice and chose the empty bucket if the communicator had been out of the room. They may have realized that the communicator didn’t know where the food was, so there was no point in paying attention to their advice. Even more fascinating, only 29% of dogs chose the empty bucket when the communicator saw the switch. This implies that the dogs knew the communicator was lying to them. The dogs seemed to trust their own eyes on the advice of the human experimenter.
Race differences in lie detection
When analyzing their data, the researchers noticed a difference in behavior between the breed groups. Unlike other breeds, terriers have shown the reverse pattern. They took the communicator’s advice more often when the communicator saw the switch than when the communicator did not. Scientists have wondered if this is due to the personalities of the different races. Would dogs bred for independence behave any differently from dogs bred to work cooperatively with humans?
To explore this further, they repeated the experiment with Border Collies (to represent cooperative breeds) and 14 different breeds from the Terrier Group (to represent independent breeds). Indeed, the two groups showed opposite behavior. Border Collies showed the same results seen in the initial experiment, with more choosing the empty bucket when the communicator didn’t see the switch. While the burrows behaved like young children and primates. More of them chose the empty bucket if the communicator saw the switch.
The researchers speculated that these racial differences could indicate different interpretations of the communicator’s intentions. Cooperative breeds like Border Collies might have viewed the communicator’s advice as misleading. Whereas the terriers might have interpreted the communicator’s encouragement to choose the empty bucket as the intention of showing them something new. It may be that by breeding dogs for cooperative work, we have made them more adept at identifying human deception. The study suggests that further research with other independent breeds like sled dogs and sled dogs would help shed light on this cognitive difference between breeds.
The researchers concluded that dogs can judge the information presented by humans based on what these humans saw or did not see. This strengthens the argument that dogs can distinguish between different states of human knowledge. In order for a dog to know that you are lying, they need to have some idea of your mental state. In other words, they need to know what you know. It’s a sophisticated cognitive skill, and for years the ability to attribute false beliefs to others has been seen as something only humans could do.
But dogs have shared their social environment with humans for at least 14,000 years. Could it be that this led to the dogs’ ability to read the deception? Or has it evolved earlier than that? The researchers suggest that future studies should explore how wolves handle this same test to see if domestication is responsible.
Of course, this study was done with humans who were previously unknown to dogs, not the owners of the dogs. Would dogs have trusted their beloved owners more? Would they have given them the benefit of the doubt even if their eyes said otherwise? Either way, it seems likely that dogs can tell when you are lying. So the next time you do that fake ball throw, remember that you might be eroding your dog’s confidence.