Doggy Enforcers and Tattle-tails

Gracie, left, and Willow (Photo by James Cramer)

Some time ago, in a post published on the Creative Loafing website, I described an incident where Jana “told on” Wylie and Oriel when they broke the house rules. A brief recap: The dogs, wet and sandy following a swim in the bay, had been gated into our office, which is at the back of the house. A few minutes later, Jana started barking. I told her to stop, then yelled at her, then, finally, went back to see what was up. She was alone. Wylie had knocked over a barrier, gone out the dog door, and walked around the house to open a French door that leads into the master bedroom. He let himself (and Oriel, who had followed) into the main part of the house.

The funny part, so revealing of their different personalities, was that, just as I was chastising Jana, Wylie marched triumphantly out of the bedroom to proclaim his jail-breaking prowess to the world. Oriel had quietly curled up on a dog bed in the bedroom, wisely not advertising her rule-breaking to anyone.

So. Is Jana the only rule-bound dog I know? Not by a long shot!

Not long ago, Willow, a family friend (also a golden retriever), was visiting a favorite plant nursery with her newly adopted sister, Gracie. Willow is an exuberant dog who has never met a stranger. The entire world is her stage and all of us, her admirers. This particular nursery is a favorite because the staff adore her — and because whenever she’s there, she gets a treat if she greets the cashier and sits nicely.

This visit progressed much like all others, Willow’s dad reports, until the nice cashier asked the dogs to sit. Willow sat. Gracie, new to this routine and a little nervous about new things, did not sit. Willow wanted her cookie. The nice lady asked Gracie to sit. Willow grew impatient. When Gracie did not sit, Willow stood up, lifted a paw, and whacked Gracie on the head. Gracie sat. When the humans stopped laughing, both dogs got treats.

Was Willow really enforcing the rules? Was Jana? Can dogs tell “right” from “wrong”? If so, to what extent can we hold them accountable for their actions?

These are big questions that dog world is increasingly willing to discuss — though dog lovers and researchers are nowhere near reaching agreement. Whole Dog Journal editor Nancy Kerns discussed this very question in a recent blog post, and I plan to teach a course that centers around this very issue next spring at the Bergin University of Canine Studies.

As we examine dog behavior more deeply and consider interpretations beyond categorizing every action as a mechanical or instinctive response, and as biologists and ethologists explore the behavior of an enormous range of non-human animals, we see growing evidence that many animals besides humans think about their actions and weigh potential consequences. The TED talks website has a fascinating presentation on animals and morality by Frans de Waal that shows empathy and cooperation in the animal world.

For now, I am considering these questions about dog behavior — and collecting stories. Has your dog ever tried to get another dog to do something? “Told on” a sibling dog who broke the rules? Or done anything that suggests that he or she thought about rules or consequences before acting? Please share your stories here or by email to:


3 thoughts on “Doggy Enforcers and Tattle-tails

  1. Social animals must have some way to encourage conformity. So while Willow’s hitting Gracie was an entertaining surprise, the concept behind it shouldn’t be.
    Our miniature schnauzer barks at us when we haven’t started to get dinner ready by the usual 6 pm dinner time, even though her dinner is out and she’s not interested.


    • That’s really interesting! My Shmoolik does much the same and I have never managed to figure out why (except that he does get to share the vegetables when I cut them up).


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