Growing up I spent a lot of time in the attic for one simple reason — that’s where my parents hid the Game Boy. No matter. I had a well-laid plan: anytime everyone was out of the house, I'd pull down the ladder, scramble up its precarious stairs, and play Game Boy until I heard the garage door, giving me just enough time to scramble down, push up the ladder, and assume an innocent position. Not me; I wasn't playing Alleyway.

As a fellow human, I hope you have your own version of this story. Well, so do dogs. In 2010, Shannon Kundey of Hood College led a study investigating when and how dogs sneak around. Here's how it went down — the study began with an inhibition task where the researcher put tasty treats on a plate and told the dog, "Nope! Not your food!” After that, the tasty treats were placed into two vastly different containers: a “noisy container” with a bell in it that rang whenever treats were put in or removed, and a “silent container” that lacked a bell and therefore treats could be acquired without making a peep.

Now for the test: the researcher "sat guard" between the two containers in one of two positions. In the "looking" condition, the researcher looked at the dog, while in the "not looking" condition, the researcher didn't look at the dog and instead put her head between her knees.

What's a dog to do? Apparently what you might do. Dogs preferred to take food from the silent container only in the condition where the experimenter was not looking at them. This means dogs preferred the silent container only when relevant to taking the treat undetected. When the experimenter was looking, and there was no way to avoid detection, dogs approached the noisy and silent containers relatively equally.

Numerous studies find that dogs are highly attentive to people, and a subsequent study from Juliane Bräuer and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found that, although dogs take into account what humans can hear, dogs don't always take into account what humans can see. Bräuer and colleagues found that dogs didn’t conceal their approach to food when they couldn’t see a person but the person could see them. They suggest “it’s likely that dogs rely on what they themselves can perceive when they assess what the human can see and hear.”

The next step for this line of work? Hopefully a reality TV show where teenagers and dogs face off in the ultimate challenge to reveal once and for all Who’s the Sneakiest?

References

Bräuer et al. (2013). Domestic dogs conceal auditory but not visual information from others. Animal Cognition 16, 351-359.

Kundey et al. (2010). Domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) react to what others can and cannot hear. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 126, 45-50.

Who’s Better At Sneaking Around... was adapted from a 2011 Dog Spies post.