Your dog may be manipulating you to get what it wants

A new study published in the journal Animal Cognition has found that our canine companions are able to deceive us in order to get something they desire. Photo from CBC

That little pooch you shower with love and affection knows how to get what it wants.

A new study published in the journal Animal Cognition has found that our canine companions are able to deceive us in order to get something they desire. And they can figure out how to do it quite quickly.

Researcher and lead author of the paper Marianne Heberlein was curious about her own dogs' behaviour. Like many dog owners, Heberlein had a nighttime routine: let the dogs out to relieve themselves and then give them a treat when they came back inside.

However, one day she noticed that one of the dogs would just pretend to pee in order to get the treat. This spurred her curiosity as to what was really going on and if the dog was purposely attempting to deceive her.

In order to study the behaviour, Heberlein and her research team from the University of Zurich conducted an experiment. Using 27 dogs, the team paired each one with two human partners: a co-operative one who allowed the dogs to eat treats, and a competitive one who withheld the treats.

After the dogs learned which was which, the dogs then had the chance to lead them to one of three boxes: in one there was a sausage; in another was a less appetizing dog treat; and the last one was empty.

On the first day, the dogs led the co-operative partners to the sausage box more often than expected by chance and more often than the competitive partner. On the second day that increased in both cases.

By leading the competitive partner to the incorrect box, this meant that the dog had a chance to keep the delicious sausage for itself later on, when the experiment was repeated with a co-operative partner. Hence, the apparently deceptive behaviour.

This ability, the researchers say, was learned quite quickly compared to other studies involving primates, which can take upward of a hundred trials before the animals made this association and acted accordingly.

The findings did surprise Heberlein somewhat.

"They really have the capacity from the cognitive aspect to use such a strategy to have a benefit in their lives," Heberlein said. "It's tactical deception, basically.

Daphna Buchsbaum, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's department of psychology, said that this is a good step in studying the social reasoning abilities of dogs.

Humans tend to think of themselves as unique, and cognitive abilities is one of those things that some believe sets us apart — and above — other animals. But more and more, this belief is being challenged as other species are found to be making cognitive choices.

Still, the speed at which the dogs learned was notable.

"I do think it's impressive that they got the co-operative/competition task quite quickly," Buchsbaum said. "It's promising that they're solving the problem and not just gradually learning more simple association."

However, she believes there needs to be more study in order to definitively say that the dogs are being deceptive.

"You'd want to see them being similarly flexible in similar situations," she said. 

As well, since it's unclear if this cognitive ability developed out of the domestication of dogs, a study on other canines, such as wolves, would also lend itself to support the findings, something that Heberlein also acknowledged.

As for the age-old battle over which is smarter, cats or dogs, Buchsbaum laughed, saying, "I think one of the biggest differences is that the dogs care and the cats don't. The argument is: are dogs smarter than cats because they understand our communication and they do what we tell them to, or are cats smarter because they don't do what we tell them to and we feed them anyway?"