Dog owners have long suspected that their canine companions have stellar instincts for more than just where the nearest snack is – whether that’s making a beeline for the person most in need of comfort or their complete refusal to acknowledge a cooing stranger’s presence despite their usually desperate need for attention.
And with the latter, if your dog doesn’t trust someone, you tend to join him in a bit of side-eye.
Now a study has backed up the idea that dogs can recognise and remember when people are unpleasant.
The research, published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews, looked into “reactions to people who are helpful or unhelpful in third-party contexts” and found that dogs were so not into people they’d seen being mean-spirited that they’d rather take a treat from a passive bystander than from someone who is actively unhelpful.
With studies having shown that by the age of one, babies are already judging how people interact, comparative psychologist James Anderson of Kyoto University decided to look into how dogs and monkeys use information about the interactions they witness.
The team asked dog owners to pretend to struggle with opening a box in front of their pet. Each time, two actors were also present. The owner would ask one of them for help and the actor would either help them or refuse. The second actor would always remain passive and not be a part of the interaction. Both of the actors would then offer the dog a treat.
As seen in the New Scientist video above, in the first instance, when the actor helped the owner open the box, the dogs didn’t care and would take a treat from either actor without showing preference. In the second instance, however – the one in which the actor actively refused to help and turned their head away – the dogs were more likely to ignore them and go to the passive researcher.
While previous studies indicate that a dog’s ‘instant’ dislike of someone is probably based on your own interactions and reaction to that person, these results suggest that dogs also do not like or trust someone they have witnessed being a bit of an arse for themselves. Which has made us think twice about arguing in front of the pooch...
Speaking to New Scientist, Anderson said he thinks the results show that the monkeys and dogs evaluate people in a similar way to human infants: “If somebody is behaving antisocially, they probably end up with some sort of emotional reaction to it.”
Thanks to our long and unique relationship with dogs (going back thousands of years, in fact), it’s no wonder they can pick things up from you Derren Brown-style before you’ve even fully decided whether you’re getting up to fetch the lead.
And now, we’re even more inclined to trust their judgement. So sorry guy in the pub who apparently doesn’t have a dog but for some reason has a pocketful of Bonios, he ain’t taking your treat.