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Do Dogs Ignore Bad Advice?

Data says dogs are less likely to follow bad advice than children.

by Karen B. London, PhD
October 13, 2016
dog looking at a person's hand
Photo: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

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Do you feel like your dog is always ignoring you? Well, if you’ve noticed your dog giving you side-eye, maybe you’re giving them some bad advice. At least that’s according to a group of Yale researchers. They suggest that while dogs are keen on following our lead, they’ll ignore lousy advice that doesn’t serve their best interests. But let’s look into how they arrived at this claim, which isn’t supported by the data.

The Bad Advice Experiment

Researchers were looking to explore something called “overimitation” in dogs. In humans, children will overimitate when they perform all the steps they have been shown, even when some of them are unnecessary. This uncritical copying of the behavior they observe may allow kids to minimize the amount of trial-and-error learning they must do.

In this study, scientists investigated whether dogs (and dingoes) would imitate the way people showed them how to get food out of a puzzle box, even when there was an easier way to do it. Only one step was required to reach the food, and that was lifting the lid to a box. As part of the experiment, humans added an extra, unnecessary action to the process by pulling a lever that did nothing and then lifting the lid of the box.

Both the dogs and the dingoes quickly learned to skip the step with the useless lever and just open the box to get to the treat inside. In other words, it looked like they ignored the useless instructions from the humans. The experimenters consider this evidence that both species learned that pulling the lever was an unnecessary step for opening the box, even though they saw humans doing it.

Getting to the Real Question

So, the data shows that both dogs and dingoes found that the lever was irrelevant. But, here’s the kicker: This study does not find any evidence that dogs imitated the humans at all. Observing the humans pull the lever did not make any difference to them — the dogs were doing it completely on their own.

How do we know? In addition to the bad advice experiment, there were also a series of box opening trials (with a different set of animals) in which dogs and dingoes were given a puzzle box, and they still didn’t use the lever — even without observing a human opening it. The authors write that, “dogs were equally likely to use the irrelevant lever,” regardless of whether they witnessed a demonstration or not.

They point out that there was no evidence that dogs were more likely to copy the humans’ actions than the dingoes were, but what’s just as important is that there was no evidence that the dogs were copying humans at all.

While it would be easy to come to the conclusion that dogs ignore bad advice from humans — this study doesn’t prove it. They would first need to show that dogs copy any human behavior, then test whether dogs copy irrelevant human behavior. There has been (and continues to be) extreme skepticism about dogs and this sort of imitation.

Dingoes vs. Dogs

There was one interesting conclusion from this study, though it has nothing to do with imitation, social learning, or human influence on dogs’ actions. Evidence from this study, as well as previous research, indicates that dingoes solve problems more quickly and with greater success than dogs.

In a third experiment, researchers offered dogs and dingoes a different puzzle box, where pulling the lever was an essential step in opening this particular puzzle box. Both dogs and dingoes did pull the lever in order to access the treat inside. Dingoes were more likely than dogs to pull the lever only when it was relevant, unlike dogs, who pulled it quite often even when it was not an essential part of the box-opening task.

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Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.