This won’t come as a big surprise to anyone who has spent a lot of time around dogs, but research has shown that dogs are capable of putting themselves into a person’s shoes, so to speak.

The study to which I am referring has the enigmatic title “Dogs Steal in the Dark.” From its abstract:

In the current study, we set up a situation in which contextual information and social cues are in conflict. A human always forbade the dog from taking a piece of food. The part of the room being illuminated was then varied, for example, either the area where the human was seated or the area where the food was located was lit. Results show that dogs steal significantly more food when it is dark compared to when it is light. While stealing forbidden food the dog’s behaviour also depends on the type of illumination in the room. Illumination around the food, but not the human, affected the dogs’ behaviour. This indicates that dogs do not take the sight of the human as a signal to avoid the food. It also cannot be explained by a low-level associative rule of avoiding illuminated food which dogs actually approach faster when they are in private. The current finding therefore raises the possibility that dogs take into account the human’s visual access to the food while making their decision to steal it.

In other words, dogs seem able to reason that if they can’t see in the dark, neither can the person in the same room, and then use that information to their advantage.

These findings fit with what I have been going though with my own dog, Apollo. He loves to chew on paper but has learned that the people he shares his house with do not approve — particularly when the behavior is directed towards homework and library books. His response? Now he only table surfs when he’s alone in the house. And before you ask, no, I do not think this habit is caused by separation anxiety (he has no other symptoms that fit) or is an attempt to “get back” at us for leaving (this would imply a degree of ill will that is completely contrary to his personality). I believe he simply understands that he can get away with indulging himself when we inadvertently walk out the door while leaving paper products out at dog level.

Another study from a few years back concluded that dogs were as intelligent as 2-2 ½-year-olds when using word and gesture recognition as the standard, were more like a 4-year-olds with regards to math, and perhaps most similar to teenagers in social settings (now there’s a scary thought).

I’ve always said that dogs are like 5-year-olds that never grow up. Sneaking a treat when they think no one is paying attention certainly sounds like something a 5-year-old would do, don’t you think?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Steews4 / via Flickr