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Are Dogs Capable of Deceiving Us?

Dogs have a theory of mind, and so can engage in deceptive behavior.

Key points

  • Many people believe that dogs are incapable of lying or consciously deceiving.
  • David Premack's theory of mind refers to the ability individuals have to infer the mental states of other individuals.
  • A case report shows how dogs can consciously and effectively engage in deceptive behaviors.

I was chatting with a colleague of mine who is in the political science department at our university. She sounded rather fatigued when she told me,

I have been trying to sort out a bunch of communications coming out of the federal government in order to find the truth about where funds targeted for disaster relief have actually been going. I'm finding that it's all a tissue of lies. I really envy you since you are working with dogs and they are incapable of lying or deception.

Image by waferboard, licensed CC BY 2.0
Source: Image by waferboard, licensed CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, her concept of angelic and truthful dogs is not supported by science. Dogs have minds that are much like that of young human children, and children are capable of telling lies—maybe not big ones involving scandals or millions of dollars, but still, they are capable of conscious deception.

Theory of Mind

It all has to do with what psychologist David Premack called a “theory of mind.” The first thing to understand is that this is not a global theory from scientists explaining how minds work. Still, it refers to the ability individuals have to infer the mental states of other individuals (e.g., their intentions, beliefs, desires). It allows us to recognize that other creatures may have their points of view and mental processes and that these might be the same or different from our own. A theory of mind is needed for successful social interactions since we need to be able to think about something like, “If I do this, then he’ll think that, and he’ll do what?” This allows us to negotiate and avoid conflict, but it also allows us to lie and deceive other people.

Dogs do seem to understand that other creatures have their own points of view and mental processes. If you consider why dogs should have developed the theory of mind, you must understand that it is extremely adaptive at an evolutionary level. Wild canines, such as wolves, may have evolved the ability to mentally “put themselves in the shoes” of others as a hunting skill.

A theory of mind would tell the wolf that it must keep out of sight and hearing of its prey, and this would encourage him to stalk his quarry silently. Once the chase has actually begun, this ability would enable the hunting canines to predict, for example, which way their prey might run during a hunt. When engaged in pack hunts of large prey, wolves will often split the pack, sending one or more animals in a particular direction and then having them lie down, out of sight, setting an ambush.

Once the ambushers are in place, the remainder of the pack then rushes at their quarry from particular angles designed to drive the animal in the direction of the waiting attackers. This requires quite a bit of foresight and planning and the ability to predict how their victim will view the situation and then react. Thus for social hunters, like dogs, a theory of mind is very useful.

Dogs seem to be very aware that other individuals have a particular point of view that must be taken into account. There is a simple test for this that you can do when playing fetch with your dog. After throwing the ball a few times for him to retrieve, all you need to do is intentionally turn your back on the dog. Inevitably the dog will run around and put the ball down in front of you. This means that the dog seems to understand that the human has to see the ball before throwing it and that the human can’t see it unless he is facing toward it.

Despite the common belief that dogs are moral and honest, the fact that they have a theory of mind kind of behavior suggests that our best friends are capable of lying and deceit when it is in their best interests. To get away with deception requires that they believe that their victim has a mind and a viewpoint, and they can manipulate what he thinks and believes. This is a fairly high level of consciousness, but in living in a socially organized world, such deceits could obviously give a dog a competitive advantage.

A Canine Example of Deception

One anecdotal example of this kind of deceitful subterfuge that I experienced involved Tessa and Bishop, two dogs owned by my wife’s daughter, Kari. We had taken the two dogs out to our farm for the weekend, where they would have a chance to play with my dogs.

Tessa was getting old and was not as interested in romping with the other dogs as she used to be, but she did like the company and the chance to nose around in the foliage, which was a pastime denied to her in the city. Tessa’s greatest love, however, was for smoked pig’s ears.

Out at the farm, each dog was given one of these every day. I had just distributed the pig’s ears, and Tessa, who liked to eat hers lying down, had settled to munch on hers.

Bishop had his in his mouth but had not yet begun to eat it.

At that moment, my wife returned from shopping, and her van pulled up to the side of the house. Either Bishop recognized the sound of her vehicle, or he was simply reacting in his ever-vigilant guardian of the family mode. In any event, he dropped his ear and raced to the door barking as he ran.

Tessa glanced in his direction, and the moment he disappeared down the hallway to the door, she dropped her own pig’s ear and trotted over and picked up Bishop’s ear. She then returned to her starting place, laid down on top of her own pig ear while munching on her companion’s pig ear.

A few moments later, my wife entered the door. Bishop greeted her, and then he dashed back to retrieve his treat. He checked the place where he had dropped it and then began to search around to see if he could find it.

Tessa, who to Bishop’s eyes would have appeared to have remained in her original place, continued to chew on Bishop’s ear nonchalantly. She quickly finished it but did not stand up. Instead, she stretched her paws and head forward, and with eyes half-closed, surveyed the scene in front of her.

After a few minutes, Bishop gave up his search and then wandered out of the room (perhaps to check if his treat had been moved to the hallway). Once he was out of sight, Tessa stood up and retrieved the ear she had been lying on. She resumed her original position and consumed the pig ear that had been initially given to her.

Bishop never appeared to catch on that she had not only robbed him but had cleverly concealed the evidence of her theft from his sight by lying down on top of it.

While not on the scale of the kinds of dishonesty that my colleague was seeing in politicians, to me at least, this seems like a clear example of a dog engaging in conscious deceptive behavior.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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Premack, D., & Dasser, V. (1991). Perceptual origins and conceptual evidence for theory of mind in apes and children. In A. Whiten (Ed.), Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading (pp. 253–266). Basil Blackwell.

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