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Can Dogs Pretend?
Perhaps they engage in “make-believe”

Snoopy loved to pretend. He pictured himself most commonly as a great hockey player, Joe Cool or as the World War I Flying Ace. It’s easy for readers of the Peanuts comic strip to accept the fantasy world of its canine star.

It’s much more challenging to know whether dogs in the real world can pretend. In Jason G. Goldman’s blog Animal Imagination: The Dog That Pretended to Feed a Frog (And Other Tales), he discusses some evidence that animals, including dogs, are able to pretend. He tells the story of a dog who placed a stuffed frog at his water bowl as though it was taking a drink. The dog arranged other toys nearby. This reminded the guardian of the way children play games of make-believe with their stuffed animals. It’s possible the dog was pretending, and also possible that she wasn’t. Without knowing what was going on in the dog’s mind, it’s tough to know whether the dog was pretending or not.

Goldman also discusses the possibility that dogs may be pretending when they play using behavior patterns borrowed from courtship, fighting or predation, though the evidence is not overly compelling. Observations of gorillas and chimpanzees using objects for other purposes, such as a log being treating as a baby, or miming the use of imaginary objects are more convincing demonstrations of pretending.

I remain undecided and eager for more evidence on the question of whether dogs other than Snoopy can pretend. Have you seen your dog behave in a way that seemed like pretending?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

Photo by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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