Canine Con Artists?

I originally wrote this post for PPG Barks, the blog of a professional positive trainers networking organization. The post was rejected; I think the reason is that I am asserting that dogs deceive each other and humans. I am  very interested in this topic, and I plan to revise the post further (or write an entirely new post) about dogs and deception. Meanwhile, I’d love some feedback from you. Please comment on the post or to me privately if you feel inclined. I am interested in what other dog people think about the question of doggy honesty and deception.

How much is a dog willing to bend the truth or improvise in order to get a reward?

That’s not a crazy question. Dogs routinely exhibit all of the cognitive behaviors needed to form an idea, plan, and execute deceptive or manipulative behavior. Consider:

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  • Dogs deceive each other or fake each other out to get what they want. One dog will pretend to hear someone at the door and bark the warning bark — anticipating that his doggy sibling will run to the door. The conniving canine then steals the dupe’s rawhide, toy, bed, choice spot by the TV, etc.
  • Dogs who have been taught to ring a bell or bark when they need to go out tend to go through at least a short period of ringing that bell constantly … or at least testing out how often they can get Mom and Dad to “hop to it” and let them out, even when all they want to do is roll in the grass or bark at the neighbor.
  • Is there any dog who hasn’t tried to convince her owners that they have “forgotten” to feed her?
  • Many dogs will retrieve items that have not been requested in hopes of getting a reward. My dogs routinely bring me extra shoes in the morning, after they’ve been asked to bring my dog-walking shoes (and have been rewarded for doing so). This is probably optimism more than dishonesty, though. I routinely reward them for bringing me things that I have dropped, whether I was aware of dropping the item or not.

It gets even more sophisticated. For example, our German shepherd used to pretend not to know where the ball had landed when we threw it and he was busy sniffing something or chasing a squirrel. A request or two to get the ball would be completely ignored. Or, to humor the annoying humans, he’d search half-heartedly for a few seconds before doing the dog equivalent of shrugging and going back to something more interesting. “OK,” we’d say. “If we’ve lost the ball, it’s time to go home.” In under 10 seconds, he’d have found and delivered that “lost” ball.

Then there’s the golden who used the bells on the door to get Mom to open the door, knowing that her annoying puppy-sister would go charging out the door … while she stood there, smiling, as Mom closed the door with puppy outside and her inside.

So. While I will concede that not all of the above examples necessarily show deceptive behavior, some do, some might, and others at least indicate an ability to manipulate humans to obtain a desired end. I believe that dogs do lie and that they sometimes deceive each other and us. And they do it for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of getting a reward.

what the dog knowsI’ve been thinking about this since I read What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren. It’s a great book; I posted a short review here on the Thinking Dog Blog not long ago. It’s about scent-dog training, specifically, cadaver dogs. The author raises an interesting topic: False alerts. She’s brave to do this, partly because many dog people ran into what I think I am running into: Many people cling to decades-old and thoroughly debunked ideas about how limited dogs’ cognitive abilities are. But mostly she’s brave for another reason: Many handlers proclaim that their dogs are never wrong and become incensed if anyone suggests otherwise.

Some false alerts are the handler’s fault. Particularly when the handler is a beginner, and the team is at an early stage of training, the handler’s body language or other unintentional cuing might hint to the dog that “this is where” he should alert. In this case, the dog is not lying; he is trying to follow the cues he’s just learning, and thinks he’s doing what the handler wants.

Training and working in situations, like cadaver searches, where the handler is not always able to tell whether the alert is false further complicates the discussion. Some false alerts, as Warren explains, might not actually be false. She says that if they are training in a vehicle junkyard, for example, and her dog alerts on the seat of a smashed car with a shattered windshield, while that is not the target she’s searching for, she rewards the alert anyhow. The scents linger for a long time, and the dog probably did detect the scent of human decay (parts of the book do require a strong stomach!).

I’m not talking about those instances though. I wonder if — and at what stages of training — dogs intentionally, knowingly lie about detecting the target scent. There are certainly working situations where the handler might not know if the scent is present and therefore is likely to trust the dog and reward an alert. False alerts occasionally do cause problems in law enforcement.

She draws a distinction between false alerts that are outright lies and those that are more nuanced and, she says, even more insidious (though not always because of misbehavior from the dog). The dog is detecting something but is not entirely sure it’s the correct scent; or the dog has detected the scent but not found the precise location and alerts anyhow; whatever the case, in these instances, she explains, the dog isn’t consciously deciding to lie. As with human behavior, not all situations are easily explained, black or white.

Warren says she will never know whether her dog’s false alerts are inadvertent or are deliberate lies — but she does not rule out the possibility of a dog lying. She also says that her dog’s body language is so clear that she thinks she could tell if her were lying. Many humans betray their dishonesty through body language. Sometimes those “tells” are very subtle. A close study of our dogs’ body language might be our best chance at knowing when they are — and are not — trying to con us.

What do you think? Have you ever worked with a pathological doggy liar? An occasionally dishonest dog?


8 thoughts on “Canine Con Artists?

  1. Absolutely! I first realized my maltipoo’s conniving behavior when I was rolling their ball out of my bedroom to the front door for my maltipoo (dog 1) and affenpinscher (dog 2) to retrieve. Their favorite inside play. Straight shot about 25 ft long. Right inside my bedroom door to the side, I placed a stack of curtains for laundry. The maltipoo seemed aggravated that he wasn’t retrieving the ball as much as he liked. So he stayed behind in the bedroom opposite side of the curtains and waited for dog 2 to bring the ball to me. Dog 2 came running back quickly, joyfully as usual with ball in mouth. Once he entered the bedroom doorway, Dog 1 (Maltipoo) reached across in front of him, snatched up the end of the curtain and pulled it across in front of dog 2 in an attempt to stop him from entering the room or to trip him and make him drop the ball. Dog 2 was too quick therefore, he jumped over the curtain and arrived at his destination unharmed. I was shocked, puzzled, and it was hillarious! Reminded me of old bugs bunny cartoons where that coyote was always doing stuff like this in attempt to catch the roadrunner for dinner. I can name 10 other examples of him doing deceptive actions in order to trap or steal the other dogs belongings, treats or bones.


  2. My Italian Greyhound has learned to whimper if he needs to go out to the balcony to use the toilet. Some days, he will whimper, go outside and pace for 5 secs and then bound back in and look at me expecting a treat.

    He also usually goes to bed to a T at the same time me and my husband do. However if I stay up and am drinking wine (only when I’m doing this!) he will stay up with me and try his hardest to get me to give him treats. A big part of this would be due to the fact that all the tricks/rewards I’ve given him have been on the exact same nights.


  3. Hello would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re workihg with?
    I’m going to start my own blog soon but I’m having
    a difficult time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution aand Drupal.The
    reason I askk is because yolur layout seems different thesn most
    blogs and I’m looking ffor something completely unique.
    P.S Sorry for getting off-topic bbut I had to ask!


    • Hi Shannon — This blog uses WordPress and the “Big Brother” theme. There are a lot of themes (they are templates for the design and the color scheme) that are free, and others that are not expensive to buy. When you look at the themes, you can see samples of different kinds of pages — pages for blog posts and static content pages. Some of them have a few options for colors and other customization, like adding a photo at the top. You can make it have your own look, and you do not need to know anything about coding!


  4. Pam,

    Zane has to be at the top of the list for proof dogs think, problem-solve and deceive! I had to respond not only to tell you your comments are right on but also to share what he does and maybe get some advice? It is embarrassing since he is my 4th service dog but 1st lab. Food is his gig and he will do ANYTHING to accomplish that goal! Examples:

    1. You talk to someone and aren’t focusing on where Zane is and counter surfing it is – even if you think the item is out of reach! His latest was an entire loaf of French bread right behind our backs! He knows exactly when the time is right, where the item is and has figured out what and how he is going to complete the mission successfully! Nothing can be left out or it’s fair game! How can a 70 lb. dog be soooooo quiet!

    2. Until we barricaded the bathroom door so it was impossible for him to get through (but cats could), he figured out he could use his weight to bust a tie that was holding the door open that was only a few inches for cats! You know what delectables awaited on the other side!

    3. He goes out to get the paper for his am treat – easy job; however, if he cannot find it, he will bring something back even if it is the neighbors paper!

    4. Zane retrieves ONLY on his terms! If there is a treat involved – no problem – the item gets in my lap! But if I don’t follow through with treat, try to fool him, try an every other time, etc., he will take the item back and run with it, unless I can have a really FIRM grip on it (which is difficult)! If no treat is around, he sees/hears something drop, he will pick up the item and drop it at my feet!! I have tried everything I learned in my dog repertoire, but :(! We are both happier if my treat pouch is handy! After 3 yrs., he is fairly consistent bringing me his leash when he exits the van! How Bonnie could get retrieves with no treat but not me!

    5. Zane loves to bring anything he finds to me or anybody in hopes of getting a treat! He will also take something I have on my lap off, drop it on the floor hoping I will treat him to get in back!

    You can see his thought processes working by looking in his eyes! Of course dogs think, problem solve, and yes, deceive us! Con artists – you bet!

    Kathy & Zane Erspamer

    Kathy & Zane

    We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.” – Tobias Wolff

    “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” – Lou Holtz

    “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.” – Saint Francis of Assisi



  5. Once, our dog Molly got a cut on the top of her paw. Mom made a fuss over her, like she always does, despite my teasing disapproval. It was only a little cut. All day, Molly limped around like a three-legged dog, and got lots of sympathy from Mom. We began to wonder if she’d hurt herself in some other way as well. But later, I observed Molly walking down the hall, perfectly normally, in the direction of the kitchen, where Mom was. I was standing partly behind a wall, so she didn’t see me. When she got to the kitchen, she stopped, and seeing that Mom was in there, suddenly began to limp. I burst out laughing. When she saw me, and heard me laughing, she ran over to me, (on all four legs,) and wagged her tail, looking at me as if to say,
    “I guess the joke’s on me now!”


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