If you’ve ever seen a dog bark at someone you felt uneasy about, you can rest assured that those back-of-your-mind instincts likely weren’t all that far off.
A researcher named Akiko Takaoka at Kyoto University in Japan conducted a study that revealed dogs can sense a whole lot more about humans than even humans themselves can detect up front. The study reported that dogs can read intent in humans well and adjust their behavior around untrustworthy or “bad” people accordingly—which could act as a warning sign for those who see it in action.
“Dogs are extremely sensitive to social signals from humans. For instance, they quickly stop trusting actors who send deceptive signals,” the study wrote, going on to detail how dogs read more than just verbal or on-command queues from the actors who helped to conduct the study.
The study was conducted using 54 dogs, trying a non-harmful experiment three times to see how the dogs responded.
In each test, a dog’s owner was placed between an actor and a neutral observer, holding a container they pretended that they couldn’t open.
In some of the tests, the owner would ask the actor for help opening the container. The actor would either help them open the container or turn away, while a third control group saw the actor turn away before the owner ever asked for help. In every test, the neutral observer sat on the other side, neither helping nor refusing to help.
After each test was conducted, both the neutral observer and the actor would offer the dog a treat. Unsurprisingly, there was no bias in who the dog took the treat from when the actor had helped their owner—but when the actor had denied the owner help, the dog consistently took the treat from the neutral observer instead.
“This choice was unlikely to be related to any benefit to the dogs because what the owners were trying to get was a junk object of no interest to the dogs, and they obtained food irrespective of their choice of experimenter,” the study explained, reasoning that the choice of the “helpers” and the neutral observers rather than the “non-helpers” had nothing to do with a reward they were getting—it simply had to do with trusting kinder behavior more.
Centuries have proven that dogs are a human’s most loyal companion. Thanks to this study, though, we now know that the loyalty isn’t just spurred by a dog’s desire to be rewarded; they’re loyal even when it gives them no additional reward, to boot.
The researchers have confirmed that they plan to do additional studies, testing to see if this preference for “good” behavior extends beyond just humans and if other animals in nature are just as hesitant to be rewarded by bad people. They want to follow up and see if dogs can sense this “bad” behavior in other dogs as well, and if they’re able to stand by their convictions even when there isn’t an alternative person to get a reward from.
As a starting point for learning more about the social dynamics of dogs, though, it’s an incredible revelation—and helps reinforce that idea that your dog really does want what’s best for you, too!
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