Dogs can be sensitive to whether a person has true or false beliefs

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Dogs can rely more on their own judgement than the directions of a human who is misleading them. In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Vienna have concluded that dogs can rely on their own judgement rather than blindly following the directions of a human even though they’d been taught to trust that person.


Schnauzer. Image by kim_hester from Pixabay.

They found this out by putting food under one of two opaque buckets. The dogs had been trained to trust the person who pointed out where the food was. So, when they pointed at the bucket covering the food the dogs went to that bucket and accessed the food.

They then had a second person move the food from the bucket where the food was to another bucket while the trusted person was watching. When that trusted person pointed to the bucket from which the food had been removed two-thirds of the dogs no longer trusted the person and decided to go to the other bucket instead. To stress, under these circumstances two thirds of the dogs ignored the communicating or pointing person who had witnessed a food switch and instead went to the other bucket that contained the food but which on prior tests did not.

The 260 participating dogs were border collies, terriers, schnauzers, retrievers and other purebred dogs. The lead scientist said that the dogs did not rely on the trusted communicator and pointer anymore which was in contrast to similar studies involving apes and children under five years of age. In these previous studies young children and non-human primates would still follow the misleading communication.

Not all dog breeds had this independence of thought. It was decided that terriers were the only breed that behave like human infants and apes. It seems that dogs don’t follow misleading human gestures blindly. The majority don’t. They seem to be able to gauge the trustworthiness of the communicator and can discriminate between those providing good directions and those that aren’t.

The study is called: Dogs follow human misleading suggestions more often when the informant has a false belief (the title is opaque (!) just like the buckets in my view and badly formulated). In the abstract to the study (the summary) they say they investigated whether dogs can tell the difference between humans having a true or false belief.

The conclusion was that “Overall, we provide evidence that pet dogs distinguish between TB and FB scenarios, suggesting that the mechanisms underlying sensitivity to others’ beliefs have not evolved uniquely in the primate lineage.”

My translation of that is as follows. They are saying that dogs are sensitive to whether a human believes something or is providing misleading information and therefore does not believe what they are saying. In the quote, ‘TB’ stands for “human true” belief whereas ‘FB’ stands for “false belief”.


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