Canines: Cute, Cuddly, and Cunning

Who knew.

Man’s best friend is quite the sneak. And there’s research to prove it.

In one study, Marianne Heberlein, who does research on dog cognition at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, wanted to test the dogs’ ability to use deception to get what they want from humans.

Here’s how the experiment worked. As part of their initial training, dogs were exposed to two different people. One person was the “cooperative” one, and when the dog would go to this person it was given a treat. The other person was the “competitive” one. When the dog went to this person, the person picked up the treat and made a show of keeping it, and not giving it to the dog.

Once the dogs became familiar with who was who, the experiment began. Here’s a description of that process from the journal the study appeared in:

During the actual test, three identical boxes were placed on the ground of the test area. All three boxes were equidistant from the starting point. During the test, one box contained a piece of sausage, one a dog biscuit, and the third remained empty. The content of each box was predetermined and randomized before the test started; it was different in each trial, and therefore, the food location was not predictable for the human partners (this refers to the cooperative and competitive individuals).

In the absence of both partners, who were waiting behind an obstacle, the owner went with the dog to each of the three boxes in a predetermined order and showed the corresponding food piece to the dog before hiding it in the box. In the case of the box that remained empty, the owner opened the box and showed it to the dog before closing it again. Afterwards, the owner brought the dog to the waiting partner who had not been able to observe the hiding procedure. While the owner was waiting behind the obstacle, one of the two partners (predetermined order) led the dog to the start position and released it off the leash. The partner went to the box chosen by the dog and opened it. If a dog approached a box, touched it or placed its nose within 5 cm, and afterwards went to a second box, the dogs were called back to the first box, because this box counted as its choice.

If there was food inside the indicated box, the cooperative partner rewarded the dog, whereas the competitive partner put the reward into her pocket. If the dogs led the partner to the empty box the partner presented the empty box to the dog by letting it sniff inside it. In all cases, after being opened the box was placed back in the original position. Following this, the partner brought the dog back to the owner who had not seen the dog’s choice and handed him/her the leash. The owner then went to the start position with the dog and asked it to indicate one of the boxes. The owner opened the box indicated by the dog and rewarded it if the box was not empty.

So what would be a dog’s optimum behavior?

Well when it was with the cooperative partner, it would go for one of the boxes with a treat, and when it was with the competitive partner, it would lead the partner to an empty box. After this first visit to the boxes was complete, the dog, now with its owner, would then go back and choose the other box that has a treat in it, avoiding the empty box. In other words, the dog should only choose the empty box when it was with the competitive partner.

So is this what the researchers found?

  • the dogs led the cooperative partner more often than expected by chance to the food location containing the preferred food (sausage or biscuit), and guided her less often to the empty food location.
  • the dogs led the competitive partner to either the food of lower ‘quality’ or to the empty box more often than expected by chance.

The researchers argue that argue that the dog’s strategy to lead the human competitor to an empty box or the lower valued food can be considered a ‘deceptive-like’ behavior. The dog profits since it is allowed to choose a second time in the presence of the owner, increasing its chances of obtaining the preferred food item.

After reading about this, I started browsing around the web a bit, and came across a related study.

In tests run by Dr. Juliane Kaminski, a psychology professor at the University of Portsmouth, she found that dogs are four times as likely to eat food when that food is in the dark, because they understand that you’re not there and can’t see as well, even if you are. In other words, they know how we see things, and they’re taking advantage of that.

In her experiments — using 42 male and 42 female dogs — Kaminski had their human owners tell the dog not to eat the food in a lit room. Then the dog was left alone with the food and the lights were turned out. The dogs, almost every time, went to town on the food once the room was darkened. “The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective,” wrote Kaminski, in a report published in Animal Cognition.

So now I know why I sometimes find our kitchen trash bag ripped to shreds when we come downstairs in the morning.

Your dog is a sneaky, conniving animal who will do anything for food, even if it involves deceiving or disobeying you.

But despite that, we still love them, and wouldn’t want them to behave any other way.

Side note – doesn’t doing research on “dog cognition” sound like a pretty cool gig?

Side note two – I wonder if I should leave our kitchen light on all night…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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