Last year, a study came out of Switzerland by Heberlein, Manser and Turner that appears to prove that dogs are capable of ‘tactical deception’ – lying – to get what they want.
Whilst I haven’t yet read the study thoroughly to get my thoughts on it, I decided to write this blog after I was invited to BBC Radio Sheffield to discuss the findings (and just dogs in general!) with the hosts, Sam and Liesje. You can hear our chat by clicking here. (I’m 20 minutes in).
So, do dogs lie? Well, why not? They’re incredibly intelligent creatures who often don’t get the credit they’re due. We know that in order to survive, dogs, along with other animals, manipulate their environment and one of the theories behind the domestication of dogs is that they pretty much domesticated themselves, which meant manipulating people, too.
In addition, dogs repeat what’s rewarding, that’s how they learn and survive. If a behaviour doesn’t achieve the desired effect, ditch it, it’s not worth the energy. If it does, stick with it unless you can make it more efficient. Dogs, and indeed other animals, in the wild, need to use as little energy as possible with as little risk of personal injury as possible, and choose the most efficient way of doing things to get what they need.
So, dogs who fib…
My boy will stand by the door and whine to go out, and when I get off the sofa to let him out, he’ll run past me and steal my spot on the sofa. Lying? Well he clearly didn’t need the toilet. He’s learned, through needing the toilet, that I have to vacate my spot on the sofa to let him out, and that it’s then up for grabs.
Whether he figured out that he wanted the spot, and that he could make me get up and vacate the spot by going to the door and whining as though he needed the toilet, or whether one day, he did want to go for a wee, but changed his mind when he saw the space become available, he has learned that it works and he continues to use the trick.
Of course, then there is the chance that a behaviour has simply become learned as a way of achieving something and we attribute the pretence to it. For example, the dog who limps for treats (something Takara has done before and I bring it up as it was mentioned on the show!). Are they pretending to be hurt? Or have they simply learned to limp as they would learn any trick. Limping gets treats/attention (or in some cases, picked up so they don’t have to walk any further!) – so it’s rewarded. The dog may not be pretending to do anything, they may simply think of it in the same way as they think of a trick we purposely taught them.
However, if we are to believe that dogs can lie, one thing we must be careful of is forgetting that dogs aren’t moral animals. They do not learn right from wrong, simply what works vs what doesn’t work. So, if a dog can lie, there is no malice behind it, he is simply doing what he has learned works. I often hear ‘he knows he’s done wrong because he looks guilty’.
A dog cannot know that he’s done wrong, because he does not understand the concept of wrong. For this reason, they also cannot act out of spite or in revenge. They may be keen to act in such a way that they know makes us happy (because that results in good things for them), or to avoid acting in a way that makes us angry (bad news for them) but they do this because our emotions impact on them.
They will not do something to purposely upset us because we have upset them, if anything they will behave in a way that will result in our emotions impacting positively on them.
Dogs who appear ‘guilty’ are usually reacting to something in us. Dogs are masters of body language and often don’t have much better to do with their day than to watch us and study us. For this reason, they are very good at reading our body language and listening to our tone of voice so they can easily pick up on when we are stressed or angry. Even if we try to hide our disappointment/anger/frustration, we probably don’t do as good a job of it as we think, and so the ‘guilty’ look we get in response is actually a submissive gesture – making themselves appear small and unthreatening, to try to avoid confrontation with us.
Dogs who are destructive when left, and act guilty upon our return never do the damage out of spite or as revenge for being left, it is usually either down to boredom (the devil makes work for idle dogs!), or panic (those dogs who panic when left alone require a careful programme to help them with this), and the guilty look will either be in response to your expression or tone of voice when you see the damage, or, if they do it before you’ve even seen it, they’ve either previously learned that you are upset on your return or because they can read your anxiety as you worry about what damage they have done.
In conclusion, I believe that we as humans, can be a little arrogant in believing we are so different to other animals, and that dogs are capable of more than we give them credit for. As such, I can believe that there is certainly a potential for dogs to be capable of deception, though I’m not sure that everything we may attribute to deception, is actually the dog ‘lying’ rather than just having learned a behaviour that looks like lying.
However, we must remember that if a dog can lie, this does not make the dog or his intentions ‘bad’ because that requires an understanding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – in fact, he’s just very good at being a dog!