Your Dog Is Too Smart to Follow Your Dumb Human Advice

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Photo: Li Kim Goh/Getty Images

When my brother and I were younger, one of our favorite winter activities was to go outside with the family dog, make a bunch of snowballs, throw them somewhere in the distance, and then cackle our sadistic little hearts out as the dog ran around trying to find snowballs on the snowy ground. What can I say? Kids are jerks sometimes. To his credit, at least, the dog always got bored of the whole thing pretty quickly.

Which, as a matter of fact, speaks to one of science’s newest findings about our canine pals: They have no patience for your human nonsense. Specifically, a study recently published in the journal Developmental Science found that when you give a dog bad directions, it’ll learn pretty quickly to ignore them.

For the study, which recruited 40 pet dogs of varying breeds, psychologists from Yale’s Canine Cognition Center placed a treat inside a puzzle, then demonstrated to their subjects how to get it out. In reality, the puzzle was just one step — all the dogs had to do was lift the lid of a box — but the researchers added an extra, unnecessary action to their demo, pushing a lever attached to the box that didn’t actually do anything. To make sure the dogs were really trying to solve the task in front of them, rather than following a perceived command, the study authors then left the room and left the animals to their own devices.

The dogs, who each went a couple rounds with the puzzle, proved adept at figuring out not only what they needed to do, but also what they didn’t: As the experiment progressed, they began disregarding the lever, going straight for the step that would get them their treat.

The study offers an interesting insight into dog cognition in its own right, but it also has another layer: The authors based their study on a similar one from 2005 that focused on children instead of dogs — and compared to the dogs, the kids weren’t nearly so savvy. Their puzzle was more complicated, but they tended to repeat the experimenters’ actions step for step each time, without ever pausing to think through or weed out the irrelevant ones. It’s a tendency the authors of this latest study refer to as “overimitation,” writing: “This pattern of results suggests that overimitation may be a unique feature of human social learning,” possibly because by uncritically copying what they see, “children generally limit the amount of time they need to spend learning through repeated trial and error.”

Or, as lead study author Angie Johnston put it in a statement: “Consider all the important, but seemingly irrelevant, actions that children are successfully able to learn, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth.” To a little kid who doesn’t yet understand hygiene, those things don’t make much sense — but you learn to do them anyway, and the reasoning comes later. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t stay so trusting.