Dogs Use Deception to Get Treats, Study Shows

When a human partner withheld tasty snacks, the dogs got sneaky

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that dogs, in addition to looking adorable in sweaters, possess fairly sophisticated cognitive abilities. They recognize emotion, for example, and respond negatively to antisocial behavior between humans. Man’s best friend can also get pretty tricky when it comes to scoring snacks. As Brian Owens reports for New Scientist, a recent study found that dogs are capable of using deceptive tactics to get their favorite treats.

The study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, was led by Marianne Heberlein of the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Experimental Studies at the University of Zürich. Heberlein told Owens that the idea for the study was born when she observed her pet pooches engaging in deceptive behavior; one sometimes pretends to see something interesting outside, prompting the other to give up his sleeping spot.

To find out if dogs engage in similar shenanigans with humans, Heberlein and a team of researchers paired 27 dogs with two different partners, Stanley Coren explains in Psychology Today. One of these partners would repeatedly go to the bowl of a given dog, fish out a treat, and give it to the pup. The other would show the treat to the dog, and then put it in her pocket. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dogs began to show a preference for the more generous partners, and would approach them spontaneously.

Once one partner had been established as cooperative, the other as competitive, the dogs were taught to lead their partners to one of two boxes, both containing food, with the command “Show me the food.” And the same pattern was repeated: when the dogs led the cooperative partner to a treat, they got to eat it. The competitive partner withheld the treat.

Researchers then showed the dogs three covered boxes. One contained a sausage, the second contained a less-yummy dry biscuit, and the third was empty. Once again, the process of treat giving and withholding was repeated, but this time with a twist: when the dog was reunited with its owner, the owner asked it to choose one of the boxes. If there was a treat inside the box, the dog was allowed to eat it. But “if the dog chose the box which had been opened before,” Coren explains, “the owner just showed the empty box to the dog.”

Read more at Smithsonian.com »

By Brigit Katz; reprinted from Smithsonian.com.

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