Why your dog took your cookie and didn’t admit to it

“I know that you know that I know.” Image credit: via Flickr user bullcitydogs

You know it. Your dog knows it. He stares at you with those big puppy dog eyes, a formidable weapon that has evolved over thousands of years for this very moment. Neither of you budge, but you have things to do and decide to let him off the hook this time. You’re absolutely convinced that your furry housemate has been lying to you. But is it actually true or did you have too much coffee again? Can animals lie?

Yes, he took the cookie.

Animals can be dishonest, and there’s proof! A study by Dr Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology looked at whether or not dogs were more likely to steal food in a dark room. The results are exactly what you may think. When told not to take a piece of food, dogs were more likely to steal in the dark because there was less chance of being caught. Therefore, dogs take into account whether or not we can see the food when deciding if they should steal.

But what about other animals?

Dishonesty is hard to study in animals because their sneakiness is difficult to pick up on. To know if animals are lying, you have to understand how they are communicating and what they may be talking about. However, there are a few animals that scientists have found to be outstanding liars especially in the game of love. Here are two examples:

“Is big. Is good.” Image credit: Via Flickr user Wilfredor

Fiddler crabs: “Bigger is better, and mine is bigger!”

Frank the fiddler crab was in a mess. He was tired of hearing love stories from his friends, and he was tired of being the third wheel. He longed for a female companion of his own, but his dreams had been shattered by the tragic accident that resulted in him losing his large fiddle claw. Fiddler crabs use their large claw to wave at female crabs, showing off how strong and powerful they are. Where Frank’s impressive claw used to be, he had regrown a replacement claw that was lighter and much weaker. Now no girls would ever find him attractive…but wait! Frank sprang to life once again. What if he pretended that his claw was strong? The girls wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, they would only see a large claw! And if other guy’s try and fight him…he’ll just have to keep bluffing! Fake it till you make it!

“My voice is beautiful, but I am not.” Image credit: Via Flickr user plumberjohn

Crickets: “You gotta sing like it’s the end of the world!”

Timothy the cricket was nearing the end of his life. He was getting old, and was pained by sickness. His only regret was that he was never able to find love, and he felt hopelessly alone. Crickets sing songs to females in order to attract them. Once a female hears a song that she particularly likes, she approaches the male and receives a gift from him. Timothy had tried to do this many times but his songs were never good enough. The females had always chosen other stronger and healthier crickets. But tonight, he was filled with a renewed sense of determination. He knew that there wasn’t much time left and with that in mind he decided to sing his final song. The song was beautiful, and sounded as if it was sung by a younger and stronger Timothy. The female crickets perked their ears, wondering who sang such a pleasant song. Timothy knew that the female crickets would be misled; he was not the young bachelor that they were looking for. It was a lie, and he knew that he was nowhere as beautiful as his voice. But it was the end of his life and he thought that it was ok to tell a tall tale. Just this once.

It all comes at a cost!

Dishonesty is always rare because lying comes at a cost. For example, if male fiddler crabs decide to call Fred’s bluff and actually fight him, he would lose miserably. Timothy needed to use a lot of energy to sing his song, which would have left him in worse shape than before. There are all sorts of reasons why lying all the time would be a terrible and dangerous idea. Which is why your dog only takes the cookie sometimes…and you’ll never know when.


10 Responses to “Why your dog took your cookie and didn’t admit to it”

  1. Caitlin Selleck says:

    macgregorc my cat also does that, and she definitely doesn’t feel guilty about it.
    Felicity, I have also heard similar things. In particular, people shouldn’t yell at their dog if the dog has done something bad while they were away. If you don’t correct the behaviour within a couple of seconds, the dog won’t know why you’re angry. It will just act submissive because it remembers the last time you were angry bad things happened.

    There’s a great story about a gorilla lying too, proper human-style lying. Koko the gorilla can communicate through sign language, and said that her pet cat had ripped a sink out of the wall. I guess she didn’t think about the likelihood of being called out on her lie.

  2. Felicity says:

    Love this blog post (both because it’s well written and because I’m always into research about dogs)!
    Another fun fact is that dogs may not actually feel guilty about deceiving you. They may just look guilty (AKA submissive) in response to your body language. Here’s an article about it:

  3. trishfishkoh says:

    Great article, Leslie! I loved the way you crafted some characters into your article!

    Josh, if you’re interested in knowing how deception can be maintained vs when it isn’t because an individual is exposed, here’s what I remember from Animal Behaviour. Deception is pretty much maintained when: 1) the cost to the individual being lied to is negligible and 2) when deceivers are rare enough so that a way of detection isn’t strongly chosen for or 3) when the cost of being caught is low enough. Hope this helps 🙂

  4. Joshua Munro says:

    This is a fantastic article with great narratives that help explain the biological relevance of lying in an engaging way! It would be interesting to learn more about the how often certain animals were observed to have success ‘bluffing.’ For example – how many times were observed Fiddler Crabs successful in a bluffing display compared to how many times it resulted in a losing fight and the bluff being ‘exposed’.

  5. tmarshall says:

    My family has always thought that our dog is not very bright – but this article makes me think it might just be an act!

  6. macgregorc says:

    My cats are experts at convincing you they haven’t been fed just to get a second meal. Liars indeed!

  7. nzegarra says:

    My dog stole a hamburger from my plate once, I couldn´t be angry, he is so cute!…it´s funny how they dissapear when they did something wrong

  8. Leslie says:

    The one legged lie that birds constantly tell is super effective. The actual reason why they do this is pretty interesting, but I wonder if we are selecting for birds that do this more often because we feed them more…

  9. Alina says:

    Great story telling! I’ve always suspected animals can lie because when you go to the beach there is always that seagull that pretends it has only one leg. But after a few minutes of not getting any food s/he magically grows another leg… deceitful little devils.

  10. Gen says:

    This explains the guilty look all dogs give you when they do something they “know” is wrong!