Limping Dog Is Empathetic and Intelligent, Not a Con Artist

By Karen B. London PhD, January 2021
Limping Dog imitates owner

The latest viral video of a dog has resulted in the dog being accused of conning his owners, but I want to defend this particular canine against those who speak against him. In the video, Billy the Lurcher limps along with his owner, Russell Jones, who—though on crutches with a broken ankle—was taking Billy for a walk.

First of all, kudos to Jones, who didn’t let a broken ankle, a cast or crutches get in the way of walking his dog! Additionally, when Billy limped and was clearly favoring one front paw, Jones didn’t hesitate to take him to the vet. The visit, including X-rays, cost £300 (over $400) and revealed nothing to explain Billy’s limp. The vet could find no injury or other reason for pain in the dog, so his limp remained a mystery.

The mystery was solved when Michelle Colgate, Jones’s partner of many years, watched the dog playing in the yard when Jones was not at home. Colgate saw Billy running joyfully and at great speed, making quick turns, and leaping into the water. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Billy’s leg or paw. To confirm this for himself, Jones used his father’s mobility scooter when he took Billy on his next walk. On that outing, Billy walked as he always does, free of any limp, injury or sign of pain. It seems that Billy was imitating Jones rather than limping for a medical reason.

The headlines are calling Billy a con artist, but I disagree. My take on Billy is that his intelligence and empathy make him capable of imitation, and he was simply copying Jones. Imitation, a form of social learning, is considered such a high-level skill that decades ago, people thought only humans were capable of learning a behavior by watching another individual perform it. Imitation has since been well-documented in a wide variety of species, including chimpanzees and dogs. Claudia Fugazza, PhD, has even developed a training method called “Do As I Do” based on this particular type of social learning.

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Limping as he did in the video required Billy to observe that Jones was not putting weight on his injured foot, and to modify his gait as he would if he were unable to put weight on one of his own paws. Or, perhaps more simply, he observed Jones holding one leg up and attempted to hold one of his own legs up, resulting in a limp while he walked. Either way, I think this dog demonstrated fine traits rather than being guilty of a con job.

Jones and Colgate are lucky to have such an intelligent, empathetic, caring dog. Bummer about the vet bill, though.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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