Mar
22
2017

Dogs can use tactical deception when the results will benefit them. Especially if there are treats involved.

Researchers from the University of Zurich investigated a three-way choice task to determine whether dogs could mislead a human. The study was published in Animal Cognition in March 2017.

According to the New Scientist, lead researcher Marianne Heberlein got the idea for the study by watching her own dogs. One will sometimes pretend to see something interesting in the backyard to trick the other dog into giving up its sleeping spot. “This sort of thing happens quite often, but it is not well studied,” she said.

The setup to the test involved several steps. First, researchers determined what kind of treat each dog preferred—a dog biscuit or a sausage. Then they presented the dogs with two unfamiliar humans, one of whom acted cooperatively and the other competitively. The dogs were also taught the command “show me the food,” and to lead the person to one of two locations—one location housed the treat and the other did not. The cooperative person gave the dogs their treat while the competitive person kept the treat.

For testing, the scenario was expanded slightly. Dogs could lead their person to one of three potential food locations, instead of the original two. One would have their preferred treat, one would have a treat they liked less, and the third location would be empty. If the dog led the cooperative person to their preferred treat, they would get it. If the dogs led the competitive person, that person kept the treat.

After leading either participant to the treats, the dogs were then handed off to their owners and were able to choose a second location.

This set up allowed for dogs to choose deception. If paired with the competitive person, they could mislead them to the location with no treat or less preferred treat. Then, when handed off to their owner, they could get their preferred treat.

The first day, dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred food box more often than expected by chance and more often than they led the competitive partner there. On the second day, the dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred treat on nearly 80 percent of trials and led the competitive partner to the preferred treat less than 20 percent of the time.

The researchers concluded the results show that dogs could distinguish between the two partners, show flexibility in adjusting their behavior, and are able to use tactical deception. 

Photo credit: © iStock/ROMAOSLO

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