Do Dogs Think?
Owners assume their pet's
brain works like their own. That's a big
Heather's normally affectionate and obedient Rottweiler, began tearing
up the house shortly after Heather went back to work as an accountant
after several years at home. The contents of the trash cans were strewn
all over the house. A favorite comforter was destroyed. Then Blue began
peeing all over Heather's expensive new living room carpet and
systematically ripped through cables and electrical wires.
"I know exactly what's going on," Heather told her vet when she called
seeking help. "Blue is angry with me for leaving her alone. She's
punishing me. She always looks guilty when I come home, so she knows
she's been bad. She knows she shouldn't be doing those things."
Heather's assessment was typical of many dog owners' diagnoses of
behavioral problems. And her vet agreed, suggesting "separation anxiety"
and prescribing anti-anxiety medication for Blue. Heather also hired a
trainer, who confirmed the diagnosis.
Blue, they concluded, was resentful at her owner's absence and was
misbehaving to regain the attention that she'd once monopolized. After
all, Blue didn't transgress like this when Heather went out shopping or
took in a movie with friends. It must be punitive. Heather's mother even
recalled Heather, as a child, throwing tantrums when
she went off to work.
Heather and Blue had become so close, she joked, that they were acting
So Heather shut Blue in the kitchen with a toddler gate, removing
countertop food and garbage. Things calmed down. Heather began to relax
and gave Blue the run of the house again.
Heather, a friend of a friend, had called me for counsel as well. But
since she, her vet, her trainer, and her mother had all reached the same
conclusion, and since the rampaging had stopped, I didn't give the
situation much thought.
month later, though, Heather was back on the phone: Blue had relapsed.
She yowled piteously when confined to the kitchen or basement. Worse,
she was showing signs of aggression with people and other dogs and
refusing to obey even simple commands that were once routine. On one
late-night walk, Blue attacked a terrier walking nearby, opening wounds
that needed stitches.
Blue's problems had grown so serious that kennels wouldn't board the dog
and the vet wouldn't examine her without a muzzle. Heather was thinking
of finding her another home, turning her over to a rescue group,
possibly even euthanizing her.
"She's out of control," Heather complained, exhausted, angry, and
frightened. She sounded betrayed—a dog she'd loved and cared for was
turning on her because she went to work. "I caused this by leaving her,"
Heather confessed, guiltily. But was she supposed to quit her job to
stay home with her dog?
This time, Heather got my full attention. I took notes, asked questions,
then called a canine behaviorist at Cornell and explained the problem in
as much detail as I could.
"Everybody says the dog was reacting to her going back to work," I
"Everybody is probably wrong," was his blunt comeback. "It's 'theory of
mind.' This is what often happens when humans assume that dogs think the
way we do."
His analysis: "Being angry at the human and behaving punitively—that's
not a thought sequence even remotely possible, given a dog's brain. The
likely scenario is that the dog is simply frightened." When Heather was
home, she was there to explain and enforce the rules. With her gone, the
dog literally didn't know how to behave. The dog should have been
acclimated to a crate or room and confined more, not less, until she got
used to her new independence.
Lots of dogs get nervous when they don't know what's expected of them,
and when they get anxious, they can also grow restless. Blue hadn't had
to occupy time alone before. Dogs can get unnerved by this. They bark,
chew, scratch, destroy. Getting yelled at and punished later doesn't
help: The dog probably knows it's doing
something wrong, but it
has no idea what. Since there's nobody around to correct behaviors when
the dog is alone, how could the dog know which behavior is the problem?
Which action was wrong?
He made sense to me. Dogs are not aware of time, even as a concept, so
Blue couldn't know whether she was being left for five minutes or five
hours, or how that compared to being left for a movie two weeks earlier.
Since she had no conscious notion that Heather's work life had changed,
how could she get angry, let alone plot vengeance? The dog was alone
more and had more time to fill. The damage was increasing, most likely,
because Blue had more time to get into mischief and more opportunities
to react to stimulus without correction—not because she was responding
to different emotions.
was familiar with the "theory of mind" notion the behaviorist was
referring to. Psychologist David Premack of the University of
Pennsylvania talks about it; it's also discussed in Stanley Coren's
How Dogs Think.
The phrase refers to a belief each of us has about the way others think.
Simply, it says that since we are aware and self-conscious, we think
others—humans and animals—are, too. There is, of course, enormous
difference of opinion about whether this is true.
When I used to leave my border collie Orson alone in the house,
uncrated, he learned to open the refrigerator with his nose, remove
certain food items, open the plastic container, and consume its
contents. Then he'd squirrel away the empty packages. Everyone I told
this story made the same assumptions: Orson was a wily devil taunting me
for leaving him alone. We actually installed a child lock on the
refrigerator door. But what changed his behavior was that I began to
crate him when I went out. He has not raided the fridge since. Yet he
could easily sneak in and do that while he's uncrated and I'm occupied
outdoors or elsewhere in the house. Is he no longer wily? Or is he
simply less anxious?
There's no convincing evidence I'm aware of, from any reputable
behaviorist or psychologist, that suggests dogs can replicate human
thought processes: use language, think in narrative and sequential
terms, understand human minds, or share humans' range of emotions.
Yet that remains a powerful, pervasive view of dogs, the reason
Heather's vet, trainer, and mother all agreed on Blue's motivations.
It's almost impossible not to lapse into theory-of-mind reasoning when
it comes to our dogs. After all, most of us have no other way in which
to grasp another creature's behavior. How can one even begin to imagine
what's going on inside a dog's head?
Most of the time, I don't know why my dogs do what they do. They seem
aware that I have a way of doing things. They've learned that we don't
walk in the street, that I don't distribute food from my plate, that
there will be a bone or treat after dinner. But they are creatures of
habit and instinct, especially when it comes to food, work, and
attention. I often think of them as stuff-pots wedded to ritual,
resistant and nervous about change.
don't believe that dogs act out of spite or that they can plot
retribution, though countless dog owners swear otherwise. To punish or
deceive requires the perpetrator to understand that his victim or object
has a particular point of view and to consciously work to manipulate or
thwart it. That requires mental processes dogs don't have.
The more I've moved away from interpreting my dogs' behavior as nearly
human, the easier it is to train them, and the less guilt and anxiety I
To attribute complex thoughts and plots to their actions unravels the
training process. Training and living with a dog requires a different
theory: that these are primal, predatory animals driven by instinct.
Rather than seeking animal
clues to her dog's behavior, Heather imagined herself as the dog. She
reasoned that if she, Heather, were suddenly left alone for long
periods, abandoned by someone she loved and used to spend a lot of time
with, she would feel angry and hurt and might try to get even, not only
to punish her companion but to try to persuade him or her to return.
That's attributing a lot of intellectual activity to an animal that can
recognize a few dozen words but has none of its own, that reads human
emotions but doesn't experience the same ones. Since the Cornell
behaviorist made sense to me, I conveyed his analysis: The dog didn't
know how to behave with Heather gone. Crating Blue would reduce her
anxiety and give her less chance to act up. I persuaded Heather—by now
distraught—to buy a large crate. For weeks, she fed the dog in the
crate, leaving the door open. Between meals, she left treats and bones
The first time Heather closed the crate door, Blue threw herself against
the metal, whining and howling. The same thing happened the second,
third, fifth, and dozens of times. But Heather, cautioned that training
and retraining often takes weeks and months, persisted. Sometimes she
left the treat-filled crate open; other times she closed it.
After several weeks, Blue began to go into the crate willingly and
remained there quietly for short, then lengthening periods. Heather
walked Blue two or three times daily; when she was gone for more than
three or four hours, she hired a dog walker to take her out an
additional time and throw a ball. But whenever Heather left the house,
she put Blue in the crate and left a nearby radio tuned to a talk
This time, Heather got it right, treating Blue as a dog, not a
rebellious teenager. Blue improved dramatically, and the improvement
continues. Her aggression diminished, then seemed to vanish, although
Heather no longer lets her near dogs or children unleashed. It seemed
the dog had comprehensible rules to follow, and felt safer.
Blue was liberated from the confusion, anxiety, and responsibility of
figuring out what to do with her unsupervised and sudden freedom. Once
again there was little tension between the two of them. Heather's house
wasn't getting chewed up, and homecomings weren't tense and angry
experiences. Yet here was a case, I thought, where seeing canine
behavior in human terms nearly cost an animal its life.
Sometimes it does. Harry, a social worker in Los Angeles, wrote me that
he had a great rescue dog named Rocket and was happy enough with the
experience to adopt a second. Rocket attacked the new dog while Harry
was feeding them, then bit a neighborhood kid. "He never forgave me for
getting the new dog," Harry explained. "He was so angry with me. I
couldn't trust him not to take out his rage on others, so I had him put
We will never know, of course, what Rocket could or could not forgive.
Rocket probably didn't attack the new dog out of anger at Harry. He was
more likely protecting his food or pack position. The creature in the
household with the most to lose from a new arrival, he probably simply
fought for what he had. Then, once aroused, he was more dangerous. As
trainers know, dogs under pressure have two options: fight or flight.
Rocket decided to fight and paid for it with his life. Had his owner
known more about dogs' true nature, he might have introduced the new dog
more gradually, or not at all. And there might be one less bitten child.
But this is all a guess. We will never know.
When I face such training problems—and I do, we all do—I try to adopt a
Sherlock Holmesian strategy, using logic and determination. We have all
sorts of tools at our disposal that dogs don't have. We control every
aspect of their lives, from food to shelter to play, so we ought to be
able to figure out what's driving the dog and come up with an
individually tailored approach that works—and if it doesn't, come up
with another one.
Why will Clementine come instantly if she's looking at me, but not if
she's sniffing deer droppings? Is it because she's being stubborn or, as
many people tell me, going through "adolescence"? Or because, when
following her keen predatory instincts, she simply doesn't hear me?
Should my response be to tug at her leash or yell? Maybe I should be
sure we've established eye contact before I give her a command, or
better yet, offer a liver treat as an alternative to whatever's
distracting her. But how do I establish eye contact when her nose is
buried? Can I cluck or bark? Use a whistle or hoot like an owl?
I've found that coughing, of all things, fascinates her, catches her
attention, and makes her head swivel, after which she responds. If you
walk with us, you will hear me clearing my throat repeatedly. What can I
say? It works. She looks at me, comes to me, gets rewarded.
The reality is, we don't know that much about what dogs think, because
they can't tell us. Behaviorists tend to believe that dogs "think" in
their own way—in sensory images involving their finely honed instincts.
They're not capable of deviousness or spite. They love routine: Nothing
seems to make them more comfortable than doing the same thing at the
same time in the familiar way, day after day: We snack here, we poop
there, we play over here. I am astonished at how little it takes to
please them, how simple their lives can be if we don't complicate them.
Jon Katz is the author
The Dogs of Bedlam Farm: An adventure with
three dogs, sixteen sheep, two donkeys and me.