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Are Dogs Deliberately Deceptive?

I can hear an entire nation of dog lovers shouting yes! Most dog owners will have observed something which they would characterise as sneaky behaviour in their pet. But until recently there was no scientific evidence that dogs can be deceptive.

Swiss Research

This type of behaviour fascinated Marianne Heberlein, who studies dog cognition at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. She was keen to test the animals’ ability to use deception to get what they want from humans. The idea to look at subterfuge came from watching her own pooches. One of them had developed the technique of pretending to see something interesting outside so that another dog would vacate a prime sleeping spot in order to investigate!

Human Partners

Heberlain instituted a study to explore deceptive canine Behaviour. This involved teaming up dogs with two human partners. The dogs were taught that one of their human partners was cooperative and one was competitive. In other words, one would share treats and the other would not.

The dogs were then taught to lead both of their partners to one of three boxes. One box contained nothing, one a treat, and one a delicious sausage! It would be in the best interests of the dogs to lead their cooperative partner to the box with the sausage and their competitive partner to the empty box. This is exactly what the dogs did more often than they would by chance.

Over two days of testing, the dogs led their cooperative partner to the sausage box more often than expected by chance, and more often than they led their competitive partner there. They were exhibiting flexibility of behaviour and deception.

Intelligent Dogs

Of course, some of the dogs proved to be more intelligent than others. A few quickly cottoned on to the behaviour that would yield the most sausages and repeatedly led competitive partners to the empty box. Apparently, monkeys have not proved to be so quick to learn this trick in similar tests. They have required more learning steps and more repetitions to cotton on to the fact that deceiving competitive partners will gain them more food.

The dogs learnt to differentiate between their human partners in double quick time and so displayed advanced cognitive behaviour. There is an ongoing debate regarding the cognitive abilities of many species. These tests have demonstrated that dogs possess sophisticated social reasoning.

Canny Cats

Anyone who owns a dog or spends time with a dog will doubtless find these revelations less than startling. Dogs are adept at learning to do whatever it takes to get their treats. Cats are pretty canny too. Personally, I have always believed that both cats and dogs have evolved to become skilled at what best serves their own interests regarding food and to ignore almost everything else. They are quick learners when it comes to grabbing a few sausages and mysteriously dim witted when presented with other tests of reason.

Our pets have evolved a sophisticated form of tunnel vision. My cat would probably have no difficulty in learning the finer points of quantum physics if he was rewarded with chicken. But when required to respond to his own name in order to go the vets, he is always struck by a mysterious case of amnesia.


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