Study Shows Dogs Can Recognize a Bad-Intentioned Person


Dogs are considered some of the most loyal animals on the planet. Is that loyalty automatic and blind, or can dogs discern when a person isn't trustworthy? A recent experiment in psychology indicates that dogs can use behavioral cues to recognize a person with less-than-honorable intentions.

The Significance of Animal Behavior Experiments

Dogs and other animals are part of people's everyday lives. However, some of their behavior is still mysterious to us—and they can't directly explain it in words. To learn about these animals, we can set up experiments that teach us more about their behavior.

Studying animal behavior is part of the field of comparative psychology, which has some of its roots in Charles Darwin's work. So long as these experiments are conducted ethically, with no harm to the test subjects, they can give us a deeper understanding of the animals with whom we share our world. Sometimes, these experiments can even help us better understand our own human psychology.

A Psychology Test for Dogs

A psychology researcher from Japan, Kyoto University's Akiko Takaoka, recently led a set of experiments with pet dogs. Takaoka's colleagues in the study were Tomomi Maeda, Yusuke Hori, and Kazuo Fujita. The results were published in a comparative psychology journal called Animal Cognition. Part of Takaoka et al.'s study was based on the premise that dogs will normally pay attention to whatever someone points at.

Experiments in comparative psychology have shown that dogs understand the meaning of the human pointing gesture.

The Kyoto University scientists presented the canine test subjects with an ''object-choice test.'' In this is a type of test, the nonhuman test subjects have to choose one object from one or more options.

  • The question: Do the dogs' responses to pointing change based on the behavior of the person pointing?
  • The test subjects: 34 pet dogs
  • The goal: Find out how dogs' perceptions of a person influence whether the dogs will follow their pointing cues.

Experiment 1

Takaoka's study comprised two experiments to examine the dogs' psychology. In Experiment 1, a scientist who was initially trustworthy later gave the dogs misleading information. Afterwards, the same person behaved honestly again.

Phase 1

Two containers were placed in front of the test dogs. One of the scientists pointed toward one of the containers, which had food in it. This scientist did not point at the other container, which was empty.

Two containers, one empty and one with food, were used to test the dogs

Phase 2

The dogs were shown what was in both containers, so they could see which container had food, and which one was empty. Then, the scientist from Phase 1 pointed toward the container that had no food in it.

Phase 3

Phase 3 of the first experiment was basically a repeat of Phase 1. In Phase 3, the same scientist from Phases 1 and 2 pointed at the container with food in it. This time around, though, many of the dogs ignored the person pointing to the container with food.

Experiment 2

In the second experiment, the scientists kept everything the same in the first two phases.

Phase 3: Redux

This time around, in Phase 3, a different scientist pointed toward the container with food. The dogs paid attention to the container indicated by this new person.

Experimental Conclusions

Scientists use comparative psychology to better understand dogs and others animals.

It appears that the dogs learned not to trust the person who gave them mixed signals in the first experiment. However, the second experiment showed that the dogs were willing to follow pointing cues from someone who had not yet given them any misleading information.

Similarly, in an experiment conducted by Anderson et al. and published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Review's November 2017 issue, many of the pet dogs ignored treats offered to them by people who refused to help the dogs' human companions. In this same experiment, the dogs accepted treats from people who had either helped or just passively stood by.

Both Anderson and Takaoka's sets of experiments seem to demonstrate that dogs have ''sophisticated social intelligence,'' as researcher Akiko Takaoka interpreted from her pointing experiment.

Experimenters gave dogs confusing cues to test their psychology and social intelligence.

For a better understanding of psychology, mathematics, and dozens of other topics, students all the way from 3rd grade to college can delve into for abundant academic resources and tips.

By Michelle Baumgartner
November 2019

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