The scientific research is in: dogs can actually tell when you’re lying — and will even ignore you because of it.
In a recent study by Austrian researcher Ludwig Huber, 260 dogs were presented with two covered bowls. One bowl was empty and the other was filled with food. A person would then present the dog with the two bowls, suggesting that the dog eats out of the full bowl by saying, “Look, this is very good!”
Then, once that trust was established, the team had the dogs watch a different person move the food from the first bowl to the second. The original person who suggested the food was either in the room to witness the switch or was briefly absent so that the dog knew that they were unaware the food had been switched.
In both cases, the person would later recommend the first bowl that was now empty. Two-thirds of the dogs in the experiment actually ignored the person who witnessed the food switch and recommended the now-empty bowl, going to the food-filled bowl instead.
This reaction was surprising to researchers, as previous studies have shown that children and primates will trust the person telling them that there’s food in the first bowl — even if the researcher witnessed the food being switched. Young children and non-human primates were actually much more likely to follow the person’s fib and approach the empty container.
This may be because the children and primates trusted the person over what they could see with their own eyes, Huber said. But dogs, surprisingly, were different.
“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,” Huber told New Scientist. “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.”
Monique Udell, an animal behavior expert and professor at Oregon State University, told New Scientist that the study is a grand example of how dogs can pick up on our social signals and then make their own judgments of them.
“This study reminds us that dogs are watching us closely, are picking up on our social signals, and are learning from us constantly even outside of formal training contexts,” Udell said.
If we needed any more proof of just how clever canines are, this is it.
H/T: New Scientist