Ask any dog owner about how smart their pet is, and you’re certain to hear more than one humorous response about how endearingly mindless they can be at times. But on the other hand, you’ll find that most owners regularly claim that their dogs are smart, attentive, and highly responsive. Indeed, it seems that the more research is done, the more we begin to realize how truly intelligent dogs are, and in unexpected ways. Studies have already shown that they are capable of distinguishing positive and negative emotions from facial expressions, can feel jealousy, and process speech in the same way as humans, among other intelligence-based skills. But one recent study reveals a surprisingly complex skill that dogs have: they are able to recognize dishonesty in humans.
A team led by Akiko Takaoka of Kyoto University in Japan set out to test this capability in dogs. The experiment used 24 dogs and operated under the assumption that dogs will reliably go in the direction that a human points to. In the first phase of the study, researchers would set out two containers, one of which hid a treat. The researcher would then lead the dog to the container with the treat, which all the dogs followed and were subsequently rewarded with the treat.
In the second phase of the study, the experimenters began to test if the dogs would take note of their dishonesty. After showing the dogs that one container had a treat and the other didn’t, the researcher would then point to the empty container and encourage the canine to go in that direction. This established a basis for the dogs to lose trust in the researcher.
The study came to fruition in the final stage, in which the researchers once again pointed to the container with a treat. But surprisingly, only 8 percent of the dogs reliably followed where the human was pointing. Since the final phase had taken place after the dogs had already been tricked in the second phase, they no longer seemed to place trust in the researchers pointing to the containers.
A second study was done to reinforce the conclusion reached by the first one. The team at Kyoto University wanted to discover whether this distinction made by dogs was formed on an individual basis, or if it would cause a general bias. The first two phases of this study were done identically to the last one, but during the last phase, the researcher conducting the experiment was switched out for someone with whom the dogs had no established basis for trust or distrust. In the adjusted final phase, all dogs reliably followed the researcher’s instructions, proving that dogs are able to distinguish dishonesty in humans on an individual basis.
According to Takaoka, this revealed that dogs have a higher level of social intelligence than we previously thought, and theorized that canines have selectively evolved to be more intelligent due to the species’ deep connection with humans. By comparison, research shows that humans aren’t able to reliably discern a person’s trustworthiness until they are 5 years old. This is a surprising development in our knowledge of dog intelligence, as they are typically considered to have mental abilities close to that of a 2 or 3 year old human. In addition, dogs are apparently capable of lying themselves, proving that they perceive a lot more than some might give them credit for.
These developments in understanding canine intelligence are fascinating to consider. As we have spent more time with dogs, humans have always had sneaking suspicions that dogs might be smarter than they seem at first glance. If we are able to continue understanding how far a dog’s intelligence and comprehension goes, we will be able to forge deeper and stronger connections with our animal companions.