Wily Wylie

The chipmunk was driving Wylie crazy while Deni put the car’s backseats down in preparation for transporting some boxes. Taunting him, chattering nonstop, and darting around the yard. It ran under the car. Wylie ran around and around the car, fixated on the annoying rodent. Deni stepped around the dog, adjusting the seats through the car’s open doors. The crafty chipmunk stayed under the car, just out of paw’s reach. Then Wylie had an idea. Jumping into the backseat of the car, Wylie paced, peering intently out each door. He had figured out that, if that darned racing-striped rat didn’t see him, it would feel safe enough to leave the shelter of the car — and Wylie would be ready when it did!

Wylie’s idea of outsmarting the chipmunk (foiled only when Deni called Wylie back to the house and closed the car doors) shows his ability to strategize. Wylie uses his canine wiliness and planning skills in other ways as well. He’s not the only one.

Anyone who lives in multi-dog families has surely seen a gambit popular with Jana, Wylie’s doggy sister. Noticing that Wylie has a bed, bone, or toy that she might like, she suddenly looks intently out the sliding glass door or runs to the dog door, madly barking her “Look! What’s that in our yard?!” bark. Ever the dutiful watchdog, Wylie immediately goes to investigate and use his authoritarian German Shepherd voice to scare off any dangerous intruder. While Wylie’s scanning the horizon, hackles raised, Jana saunters over to the bed, bone, or toy he had been enjoying … and takes possession.

These stories and many more indicate that dogs have what is called “theory of mind.” Theory of mind means that they are aware of points of view other than their own and use that awareness to guess what another creature might do in a particular situation. It’s a necessary element for empathy and plays a role in much higher-level thought and social interaction.

For many scientists, though, theory of mind is a crucial component of what makes humans, well, human — and unique. As in, smarter-more sophisticated-better than non-human animals. Human children begin to demonstrate theory of mind by about age four. So attributing theory of mind to dogs can be controversial. Some psychologists and dog researchers who are reluctant to attribute theory of mind to dogs ascribe dogs’ ability to “read” us humans to group consciousness or instinct.

Increasingly, though, some are willing to at least take a tentative step out on that limb.

Psychologist and dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, for example, proposes what she calls a “rudimentary theory of mind” that might exist in dogs. She defines this as “more than acting instinctively, or as a behaviorist, but less than acting with the theoretical understanding characteristic of humans.”

I’ll take that; I am not (yet) ready to argue that dogs’ cognitive abilities are on a par with those of the average human. But there are too many examples of dogs anticipating and manipulating others’ behavior and empathizing with others’ emotions to ignore the evidence that suggests that dogs show theory of mind. And it is important to consider that we, with our human limitations, are measuring dogs’ theory of mind based on how it works for humans. It’s a good bet that we haven’t come up with a relevant-to-dogs way of testing it yet.

It’s cool enough that dogs show theory of mind about their own species, even if they tend to use it, as Jana does, for nefarious purposes. But it’s even more amazing that dogs use theory of mind in their interactions with humans, often anticipating what we’ll do — and coming up with endless ways of manipulating us to walk, play with, and feed them. Any dog who has ever brought his or her human a leash, an empty bowl, or a ball is showing theory of mind (as well as creative communications skills and great optimism!). Wylie was even using theory of mind to try to imagine how the chipmunk might change its behavior if the dog was out of sight. Better luck next time, Wylie!