Yesterday, I was in the pet shop with my dog Martha. As is usual, I picked up things we needed, then let Martha choose a treat. Often, she’s inseparable from that treat buy for hours. Sometimes though, she just dumps it the minute we get home and shows no interest in it at all. Surely she couldn’t be deliberately making me buy things she didn’t really want… could she?
Dog owners (like me) tend to endow their dogs with an almost childlike innocence, seeing them as honest, faithful and loyal companions. All of that is true, of course, but even very young infants are capable of striking us. Can a dog deliberately do the same?
Turns out they can! In a nice piece over on the Psychology Today blog, Stanley Coren describes a very elegant experiment involving some 27 dogs which shows clear evidence of deliberate deception towards humans – but only when they deserve it, of course. In the experiment, the dogs were repeatedly shown three boxes in a sort of canine version of Deal or No Deal. One box contained a favourite treat, a second contained a ‘so-so’ treat, and the third was empty. Next, human volunteers were led to a box by a dog, which they duly opened. Some humans kindly gave the dogs the contents, while others were very mean and kept the contents for themselves. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the dogs quickly figured out who the kind humans were and who the mean ones were.
And the dogs soon began to take their revenge too. Kind humans who allowed a dog to keep the treats would be shown to the box containing the favourite snack on 80% of occasions. Mean humans, by contrast, were only led to that particular box 20% of the time at best, very often being tricked into the empty box instead. Pretty neat experiment!
So… whenever you ask your dog’s opinion on anything, make sure you haven’t been mean to her recently – she might just encourage you to make the wrong choice and get even!