Scientists Confirm Dogs Can Really Tell If A Person Is Untrustworthy

Scientists Confirm Dogs Can Really Tell If A Person Is Untrustworthy

Cat or dog? This has been an ongoing argument for new pet owners over the years. While both animals have their pros and cons, a new study may convince pet owners to make a pup their new best friend for life.

Choosing between taking a cat or a dog as a pet can be difficult. Both animals are incredibly cute, and with some creative costumes, quite Instagram-worthy.

However, they do have their differences. For one, dogs need more care, while cats are more autonomous. Even though some dogs may not seem terribly bright when they’re chasing their own tails, in many ways, they are very intelligent.

Dogs are much more sensitive than cats when it comes to human emotions. They can smell fear, tell the difference between happy and angry faces, protect their humans, and even show jealousy. As it turns out, science also confirms that they are pretty good at picking up on human behavior, and there is evidence showing they can sense how we feel.[1]

Dogs Know When You’re Being Untrustworthy

It is common knowledge that dogs are hard-wired to understand what it means when a human points at something. When a dog sees their owners or someone they trust pointing to the location of a ball, stick, or food, they will respond by running to and exploring the location the person is pointing at.[2]

New research, however, shows that they are quick to figure out if these gestures are misleading. In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, a team led by Akiko Takaoka of Kyoto University in Japan presented 34 dogs with three rounds of pointing.[3]

They did this to find out whether dogs “automatically” follow human pointing gestures or whether they adjust their behavior according to the reliability of the pointer.

They tested each dog in two different experiments in which a piece of food was hidden in one of two containers. The following was taken from their notes:

Experiment 1

  • Phase 1, an experimenter pointed at the baited container [filled with food]; the second container was empty.
  • Phase 2, after showing the contents of both containers to the dogs, the experimenter pointed at the empty container.
  • Phase 3, the procedure was exactly as in Phase 1.

When they compared the dogs’ responses to the experimenter’s pointing gestures in Phases 1 and 3, the researchers found that while most dogs followed the pointing in Phase 1, most ignored it in Phase 3.

Experiment 2

In the next step of the experiments, the dogs eagerly followed a new experimenter who repeated Phase 1. This ruled out the possibility that they simply lost motivation to participate. This led the researchers to the following conclusion:

These results suggest that not only dogs are highly skilled at understanding human pointing gestures, but also, they make inferences about the reliability of a human who presents cues and consequently modify their behavior flexibly depending on the inference.[3]

Takaoka says 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 adds that the next step of the study will be to test the reaction of closely related species, such as wolves, in the same situation. This she says would then reveal the “profound effects of domestication” on the social intelligence of dogs [1].

Dogs Love Predictability

John Bradshaw, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s vet school, says the results of the above study indicate that dogs prefer predictability. When gestures become inconsistent, dogs tend to become nervous and stressed.

“Dogs whose owners are inconsistent to them often have behavioral disorders,” he adds. If they consistently don’t know what’s going to happen next, they can get stressed, aggressive or fearful.[4]

He believes that the last part of the experiment can be explained by the fascination dogs have with anything new. “Dogs are almost information junkies,” says Bradshaw, so a new experimenter is “trusted” once more.

Your Dog Knows When You’re Being Disrespected

Asides from your dog liking things to be predictable, they can also tell if you’re disrespecting their owners. In a study by developmental psychologists in the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, dogs clearly read the communication between their owners and strangers.[5]

In the experiment, dog owners asked two groups of strangers for a little help. The dogs showed a good understanding of social rules and knew the people who behaved badly to their owners. They ended up avoiding these individuals, even after they were offered treats.


  1. Dogs can tell if you’re untrustworthy“, BBC. February 2015.
  2. Dogs’ (Canis familaris) responsiveness to human pointing gestures”, Journal of Comparative Psychology, American Psychological Association. March 2002.
  3. Takaoka, A., Maeda, T., Hori, Y. et al. Anim Cogn (2015) 18: 475.
  4. “Dogs can recognize a bad person and there’s science to prove it”, Good. June 2019.
  5. “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs”, Science Direct. November 2017.