I originally wrote this post for PPG Barks, the blog of a professional positive trainers networking organization. The post was rejected; I think the reason is that I am asserting that dogs deceive each other and humans. I am very interested in this topic, and I plan to revise the post further (or write an entirely new post) about dogs and deception. Meanwhile, I’d love some feedback from you. Please comment on the post or to me privately if you feel inclined. I am interested in what other dog people think about the question of doggy honesty and deception.
How much is a dog willing to bend the truth or improvise in order to get a reward?
That’s not a crazy question. Dogs routinely exhibit all of the cognitive behaviors needed to form an idea, plan, and execute deceptive or manipulative behavior. Consider:
- Dogs deceive each other or fake each other out to get what they want. One dog will pretend to hear someone at the door and bark the warning bark — anticipating that his doggy sibling will run to the door. The conniving canine then steals the dupe’s rawhide, toy, bed, choice spot by the TV, etc.
- Dogs who have been taught to ring a bell or bark when they need to go out tend to go through at least a short period of ringing that bell constantly … or at least testing out how often they can get Mom and Dad to “hop to it” and let them out, even when all they want to do is roll in the grass or bark at the neighbor.
- Is there any dog who hasn’t tried to convince her owners that they have “forgotten” to feed her?
- Many dogs will retrieve items that have not been requested in hopes of getting a reward. My dogs routinely bring me extra shoes in the morning, after they’ve been asked to bring my dog-walking shoes (and have been rewarded for doing so). This is probably optimism more than dishonesty, though. I routinely reward them for bringing me things that I have dropped, whether I was aware of dropping the item or not.
It gets even more sophisticated. For example, our German shepherd used to pretend not to know where the ball had landed when we threw it and he was busy sniffing something or chasing a squirrel. A request or two to get the ball would be completely ignored. Or, to humor the annoying humans, he’d search half-heartedly for a few seconds before doing the dog equivalent of shrugging and going back to something more interesting. “OK,” we’d say. “If we’ve lost the ball, it’s time to go home.” In under 10 seconds, he’d have found and delivered that “lost” ball.
Then there’s the golden who used the bells on the door to get Mom to open the door, knowing that her annoying puppy-sister would go charging out the door … while she stood there, smiling, as Mom closed the door with puppy outside and her inside.
So. While I will concede that not all of the above examples necessarily show deceptive behavior, some do, some might, and others at least indicate an ability to manipulate humans to obtain a desired end. I believe that dogs do lie and that they sometimes deceive each other and us. And they do it for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of getting a reward.
I’ve been thinking about this since I read What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren. It’s a great book; I posted a short review here on the Thinking Dog Blog not long ago. It’s about scent-dog training, specifically, cadaver dogs. The author raises an interesting topic: False alerts. She’s brave to do this, partly because many dog people ran into what I think I am running into: Many people cling to decades-old and thoroughly debunked ideas about how limited dogs’ cognitive abilities are. But mostly she’s brave for another reason: Many handlers proclaim that their dogs are never wrong and become incensed if anyone suggests otherwise.
Some false alerts are the handler’s fault. Particularly when the handler is a beginner, and the team is at an early stage of training, the handler’s body language or other unintentional cuing might hint to the dog that “this is where” he should alert. In this case, the dog is not lying; he is trying to follow the cues he’s just learning, and thinks he’s doing what the handler wants.
Training and working in situations, like cadaver searches, where the handler is not always able to tell whether the alert is false further complicates the discussion. Some false alerts, as Warren explains, might not actually be false. She says that if they are training in a vehicle junkyard, for example, and her dog alerts on the seat of a smashed car with a shattered windshield, while that is not the target she’s searching for, she rewards the alert anyhow. The scents linger for a long time, and the dog probably did detect the scent of human decay (parts of the book do require a strong stomach!).
I’m not talking about those instances though. I wonder if — and at what stages of training — dogs intentionally, knowingly lie about detecting the target scent. There are certainly working situations where the handler might not know if the scent is present and therefore is likely to trust the dog and reward an alert. False alerts occasionally do cause problems in law enforcement.
She draws a distinction between false alerts that are outright lies and those that are more nuanced and, she says, even more insidious (though not always because of misbehavior from the dog). The dog is detecting something but is not entirely sure it’s the correct scent; or the dog has detected the scent but not found the precise location and alerts anyhow; whatever the case, in these instances, she explains, the dog isn’t consciously deciding to lie. As with human behavior, not all situations are easily explained, black or white.
Warren says she will never know whether her dog’s false alerts are inadvertent or are deliberate lies — but she does not rule out the possibility of a dog lying. She also says that her dog’s body language is so clear that she thinks she could tell if her were lying. Many humans betray their dishonesty through body language. Sometimes those “tells” are very subtle. A close study of our dogs’ body language might be our best chance at knowing when they are — and are not — trying to con us.
What do you think? Have you ever worked with a pathological doggy liar? An occasionally dishonest dog?