Science Says Dogs Can Sniff Out Untrustworthy People

Pierre Van ZylPets

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If you enjoy horror movies, you have learned to always trust the dog. If a dog won’t enter a house, it’s probably haunted. If a dog starts barking at a certain object, it’s warning the owner of its danger. And when a dog growls at a new character, it’s always the murderer, evil twin, or whatever monster the film features.  Movie-goers trust the “evil-detecting dog” on the silver screen, but you think dogs can sense bad person in real life too? 

Dogs Can Detect Untrustworthy People, According to Study 

Although dogs may look silly chasing their own tails, they are intelligent creatures with high social awareness. Studies have found that dogs can sense human emotions and differentiate between happy and angry expressions. They use this sense to deem a person trustworthy or not. If the person is determined to be unreliable, the dog will stop following their cues. 

A study published in the journal Animal Cognition explored this tendency. Akiko Takaoka of Kyoto University in Japan and her team tested 34 dogs with three rounds of pointing [1]. Dogs easily understand the pointing gesture, and if an owner points at a ball or food, the dog will run to that location to find out what the owner was pointing at. [2]  

In the first round, the researchers pointed the dogs toward food hidden in a container. During the next round, they pointed at an empty container, misleading the pups. When the experimenters pointed accurately at a container with food in the third round, the dogs ignored the cue, having deemed them unreliable guides.  

A second set of three rounds began with a new experimenter entering the ring. The dogs followed these people’s cues with renewed interest.  

Takaoka explains that she was surprised that the dogs “devalued the reliability of a human” so quickly. 

“Dogs have more sophisticated social intelligence than we thought. This social intelligence evolved selectively in their long life history with humans.” 

She goes on to say the next step is to test a closely-related species, like wolves. This would examine the “profound effects of domestication” on dogs’ social intelligence.  

Read: Dogs are Born with Ears and Tails. They Should Get to Keep Them

Dogs Don’t Trust Unreliable People 

John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol in the UK, who was not involved with the research, comments on the study, saying it highlights that dogs like things to be predictable. When their lives become irregular, they look for another activity to do. Being constantly in the dark about what’s going to occur can make them stressed, aggressive, or scared. This is why, Bradshaw explains, “Dogs whose owners are inconsistent to them often have behavioral disorders.” 

He describes dogs as “information junkies,” which is why the dogs became fascinated with their new experimenter and were eager to trust them at once. 

Dog owner Victoria Standen is unsurprised with the research’s findings. She owns a collie named Cassie, one of the most intelligent breeds out there.  

When Cassie is out for a walk, she would sit at crossroads and wait to be directed which way to go. “I’ve taken to pointing which direction and after she looks that way, she looks back to me to check it’s okay to run off,” says Standen. 

In regard to the experiment, if a person proves to be unreliable, Cassie is unlikely to trust them.  

According to Bradshaw, dogs are being increasingly proven to be intelligent, but a different sort of intelligence from people.  

“Dogs are very sensitive to human behavior but they have fewer preconceptions,” he says. “They live in the present, they don’t reflect back on the past in an abstract way, or plan for the future.” 

When dogs enter a situation, he adds, they will react to what’s there “rather than thinking deeply about what that entails.” 

Dogs don’t mindlessly follow whatever any random person tell them, says Brian Hare who is chief scientific officer at Dognition. “They evaluate the information we give them based in part on how reliable it is in helping them accomplish their goals. Many family dogs, for instance, will ignore your gesture when you point incorrectly and use their memory to find a hidden treat.” [3

Read: Man Made His Wife Choose Between Her Rescue Dogs And Him – She Picked The Dogs

So, Can Dogs Sense Bad People? 

Does this mean that dogs can sniff out murderers and evil twins? Not necessarily, but how a person treats a dog can say a lot about them. If you meet someone with an inexplicably aggressive dog, or your own pup seems stressed around a certain individual, it could be a negative reflection of that person’s character. Likewise, if your dog seems to love someone for seemingly no reason, it could be a sign of a trustworthy character. More research is needed to explore the extent of canine’s social awareness but this study is promising. 

Dogs can’t be a ghost or evil person radar in real life, but they may help point their owners toward kinder and more reliable friends. As if man’s best friends don’t do enough for their humans already! 

Keep Reading: Another Reason to Love Your Dog – They Can Sniff Out Cancer!

[1] “Do dogs follow behavioral cues from an unreliable human?” Akiko Takaoka, Tomomi Maeda, Yusuke Hori, & Kazuo Fujita. Animal Cognition. October 28, 2014 

[2] “Pointing to Differences Between Humans and Dogs in Understanding Communicative Gestures.”  American Psychological Association. March 27, 2014 

[3] “Dogs can tell if you’re untrustworthy.” Melissa Hogenboom. BBC. February 20, 2015 

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