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Can Dogs Pretend?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Earlier today, friend-of-the-blog Sheril Kirshenbaum (blog, twitter) asked a question on her blog, Culture of Science: Do Dogs Play “Make Believe?”:

…this afternoon Happy did something unusual. She carried a toy frog over to her water bowl, and gently put it down as pictured. Given its orientation, I’m skeptical that her placement was an accident.

The frog continues to sit like this (20 minutes later) as Happy arranges other toys nearby. Now I admit I may be anthropomorphizing, but her behavior sure reminds me of a child playing “make believe” with stuffed animals.

Happy is actually a pretty amazing dog, and has frequently been a topic of conversation between me and Sheril. For example, we’ve discussed how she appears to be able to “read.”

So, here’s a question for readers: what do you think is going on here? Can dogs engage in pretend play? Can they imagine, or make-believe? Or is this just an accidental arrangement of objects?

I’ll hold off on providing my own opinion – as well as what I can glean from reading the literature – until tomorrow. If you don’t have a Sci Am login to comment here, go ahead and comment over on Google+ or on twitter.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bouckau 7:13 pm 09/6/2011

    As far as play goes, while there’s a ton we don’t know about, I don’t think animals “pretend” in the way the article puts it. I think solitary play is mostly a desire for novelty, which may appear to have purpose, but I believe is only due to the animals relating to the world in using previous experiences.
    The only case I believe there’s some truth to pretending is with mothering instinct, but those behaviors are usually chemically induced.

    I have to comment on the video of Happy appearing to read, it seems like an obvious case of Clever Hans (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_Hans).

    -Austin Bouck
    blogs.oregonstate.edu/abouck

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  2. 2. egoebelbecker 7:42 pm 09/6/2011

    I don’t know about dogs playing pretend…it’s a bit of stretch to my mind. I’d like to see what Happy was doing when she left the toy there. Buddha (one of my dogs) scatters his toys all over the place, and I bet I could find one of them in an interesting position too. Play fighting is a form of “pretend”, right? But dogs don’t carry real frogs to water bowls (unless we have discovered a dog that likes to cook.)

    As far as Happy reading, I’d like to see the following:

    1) Change the order you show the signs. (I.E. start with the “down”)
    2) Hold up a blank sheet (or a sheet that says “Banana”) first.
    3) While happy is sitting, bend toward her with no sign.
    3a) Bend toward her with the “sit” sign
    3b) Bend toward her with the “Banana” sign.

    Link to this
  3. 3. colcifer 8:07 pm 09/6/2011

    Happy is clearly reading but she’s reading body language, not English.

    Link to this
  4. 4. StrangeLoop641 8:07 pm 09/6/2011

    I doubt it. The video is especially telling, when the dog doesn’t respond straight away to the sign saying “Lay Down”, Sheril bends lower and then only does the dog lay down. She should try with nonsense words and get someone else to try get the dog to read.

    Also it’s likely that dogs were artificially selected (consciously or unconsciously) for the ability to show humanlike traits. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing them. That said it’s an empirical question (a really difficult one, juging by primate research) and I’m not familiar with the literature on it, so I remain skeptical about it, but not dog matically.

    I haven’t read it but I heard saw somebody recommend this book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Dog-Sense-Science-Behavior-Better/dp/0465019447/

    Link to this
  5. 5. leggedfish 9:46 pm 09/6/2011

    My mom’s dog would always “feed” her stuffed animals, putting their heads into her food dish. Whether this was pretending or a misdirected mothering instinct, it would be difficult to know. But it was definitely purposeful.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Suttkus 9:55 pm 09/6/2011

    I don’t know about dogs, but I know my cat lied to me.

    My cat, Alex, and I have a game. When a moth gets in the house and is flying around the roof, Alex spots it and gets my attention, then I pick him up and hold him to the roof and he tries to catch the moth. All well and good. Just one of those typical arrangements between humans and pets that form.

    One day, I’m sitting at the computer eating my lunch and Alex hops up on the chair beside me, staring up at the roof as if he was looking at a moth, complete with his head darting back and forth as the moth moves. I looked up, but I couldn’t see a moth. Alex was quite insistant, jumping off the chair to chase the “moth” around the room and then running back, trying to get my attention. But I couldn’t see a moth. I kept looking. Eventually, I got up and walked over to the other side of the room to see if I could find this “moth”.

    Which was when Alex stole the meat out of my hamburger.

    I have no good interpretation of this other than that my cat told me a deliberate lie. Yes, I was outsmarted by a cat. : – )

    Link to this
  7. 7. Sheril Kirshenbaum 10:19 pm 09/6/2011

    The video is a quick example (I think I made it quickly to show Jason this trick). Happy actually does this regardless of the order or handwriting – but it’s not complicated. It’s a game she learned in kindergarten that lots of dogs can do.

    The post from earlier today was more musing about being charmed by my pup than any kind of scientific take on the situation. Although there will be a terrific book coming out on dog cognition from Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods soon.

    Link to this
  8. 8. colcifer 11:15 pm 09/6/2011

    Suttkus,

    That’s a great story. My dog tricked me into opening the door for her when I was keeping her inside rather than letting her lay in the sun out front where I couldn’t keep an eye on her. She barked as though someone was passing by, knowing that I’d let her inspect the yard herself once I was satisfied there was no one she’d bother. So she goes outside and lays down. I was so amused I let her stay out for a few minutes. She tried it again later that day and I had her come back in immediately and that was that. Other times I could swear she misbehaved knowing she’d get a treat once she corrected herself.

    Link to this
  9. 9. bahead 4:50 pm 09/7/2011

    I agree with some of the other comments … I’m not sure if dogs can “pretend” (e.g., fantasize), but they definitely can plan ahead and deceive. Our border collie does this all the time. We have three cats too and when we put their food down, she’ll often wait until we’re absorbed in conversation with each other, or when we leave the room for a while, and then she’ll head into the other room and gobble up the cat food. A few times, I’ve caught her grabbing mouthfuls of cat food (when she thinks I’m not looking) and then slinking into another room to eat it. She “outsmarts” me whenever I let my guard down. And yes, the video is clearly a case of Clever Hans. Dogs can understand verbal and physical commands, but they can’t read English or understand symbolism.

    Link to this

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