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Deceptive-like behaviour in dogs (Canis familiaris)


Deception, the use of false signals to modify the behaviour of the receiver, occurs in low frequencies even in stable signalling systems. For example, it can be advantageous for subordinate individuals to deceive in competitive situations. We investigated in a three-way choice task whether dogs are able to mislead a human competitor, i.e. if they are capable of tactical deception. During training, dogs experienced the role of their owner, as always being cooperative, and two unfamiliar humans, one acting ‘cooperatively’ by giving food and the other being ‘competitive’ and keeping the food for themselves. During the test, the dog had the options to lead one of these partners to one of the three potential food locations: one contained a favoured food item, the other a non-preferred food item and the third remained empty. After having led one of the partners, the dog always had the possibility of leading its cooperative owner to one of the food locations. Therefore, a dog would have a direct benefit from misleading the competitive partner since it would then get another chance to receive the preferred food from the owner. On the first test day, the dogs led the cooperative partner to the preferred food box more often than expected by chance and more often than the competitive partner. On the second day, they even led the competitive partner less often to the preferred food than expected by chance and more often to the empty box than the cooperative partner. These results show that dogs distinguished between the cooperative and the competitive partner, and indicate the flexibility of dogs to adjust their behaviour and that they are able to use tactical deception.

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We thank Dr. Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Prof. Dr. Kurt Kotrschal and Laura Stott for their comments on this manuscript, Judith Burkart for her discussion during preparation of the manuscript and two unknown referees for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Special thanks to Sandra Gross, Jennifer Morger, Ruth Hangartner and Linda Lüthi, who helped us a lot with conducting the experiments, Christina Mayer for inter-observer reliability coding, and many thanks to all dogs and their owners who voluntarily participated in this experiment. We thank Dr. Zsófia Virányi (Head of Clever Dog Lab, Co-Director of Wolf Science Center, Austria) for her contribution to the unpublished study: ‘showing—intentional communication—in dogs’, which is cited in this publication. Furthermore, we would like to thank Mars Switzerland Inc. in Zug for the dog biscuits and the presents for the dogs and their owners.

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Correspondence to Marianne T. E. Heberlein.

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All procedures performed in this study involving animals were approved by the Zurich Cantonal Veterinary Department, concessionary number 07/2009, responsible for the ethical treatment of animals where the study was conducted, and the dog owners gave their informed consent before participating.

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Informed consent was obtained from the dog owners, for subjects that participated in the study.

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Heberlein, M.T.E., Manser, M.B. & Turner, D.C. Deceptive-like behaviour in dogs (Canis familiaris). Anim Cogn 20, 511–520 (2017).

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  • Canis familiaris
  • Cognition
  • Deception
  • Dog
  • Misleading
  • Dog–human interaction