‘Every owner I speak to seems almost proud of their dog’s greedy cunning.’
Photograph: Action Press / Rex
Monday 13 March 2017
Man’s best friend has been getting some bad press. As the New Scientist reported, “Dogs use deception to get what they want from humans.”
The researcher behind this story, Marianne Heberlein of the University of Zurich, had been studying the willingness of dogs to lead humans to food. She found that they were significantly more likely to direct humans who did not have a history of sharing treats with them to a box containing a dull, dry dog biscuit than to one containing a juicy sausage. The opposite was true with those they perceived to be more generous with food.
Without wishing to upset Heberlein, the fact that dogs will happily deceive you for a sausage will come as a surprise only if your sole experience of the canine race comes from watching re-runs of Lassie. Indeed, it will have barely registered with owners frantically Googling “Are laundry tablets poisonous to labradors?” while on hold to the vet’s for the third time in a week.
“Impressive flexibility” sounds the kind of thing you’d say about a politician’s attitude to their manifesto commitments, and indeed the average dog is only slightly more trustworthy than the average Tory chancellor.
‘Owners frantically Google ‘Are laundry tablets poisonous to labradors?’ while on hold to the vet’s for the third time in a week.’ Photograph: Alamy Where anyone got the idea that these animals were loyal companions, as incapable of dissemblance as they are of playing the piano, is unclear – though that wee scamp Greyfriars Bobby no doubt played a part. The crowd of tourists around the statue of this stout little Skye terrier on Edinburgh’s George IV bridge always makes me snort, even as I attempt to stop Wilf, my own sturdy Scottie, from mugging them for ice cream. Far from the heartbroken animal that kept watch at his master’s grave for 14 years, evidence suggests that Bobby hung around the churchyard because his fans came there to feed him. Turns out these scruffy mutts aren’t as stupid as they look.
In fact, I reckon there’s a strong case to be put for the dog being the greatest confidence trickster in history, having evolved from those canny wolves who realised the advantages of scavenging from human waste as opposed to hunting their own food. The appearance of the average adult dog, with the large eyes, snub nose and floppy ears characteristic of a wolf puppy, is designed to take maximum advantage of our weakness for those physical traits we consider appealing. Few of the millions who watched an arctic wolf snapping at the heels of the caribou on Planet Earth II last year will have been rooting for the poor old hungry canid – “Oh my God, so cute!” – even those with one of the canid’s relatives snoozing at their feet, having enjoyed a hearty dinner they’d done nothing to merit.
‘Few who watched an arctic wolf snapping at the heels of the caribou on Planet Earth II will have been rooting for the poor old hungry canid.’ Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC My own dog is only too happy to manipulate the facts to his advantage: having been fed, and scoured the bowl clean, he’ll wait patiently until someone new enters the room, then drag it towards them, whimpering piteously. He’ll cower theatrically if I tell him off in public – so much so that I can almost see strangers wiping away the tears as they speed-dial the RSPCA – but bark defiantly at a similar ear-bashing at home. And he’s definitely not above pretending he wants to get up on my lap for a cuddle, only to make a move on my lunch.
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Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend – they’re man’s least honest friend | Felicity Cloake