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Dogs Think About and Plan For the Future, Don't They?

In a recent essay Stanley Coren notes that this surely is a possibility

This post is in response to
Do Dogs Think About and Plan For the Future?

Update: A video that's well worth watching concerning future thought by dogs.

An essay by Dr. Stanley Coren called "Do Dogs Think About and Plan For the Future?" raises some very interesting questions about the cognitive capacities of dogs. Not surprisingly, I received a number of emails from people who read his insightful and provocative piece asserting that the answer to this question is clearly and absolutely "Yes." One person wrote, "Of course they do. How could they survive in their demanding social worlds?" Another wrote, "My goodness, just watch them," while someone else noted, "If birds and other animals do, why can't dogs?" Two people relayed similar stories about how their dog would lead them to a ball or other toy that was stuck under a bed or a chair so that they would retrieve the object so their dog could continue playing with it.

Dr. Coren provides some good examples that support that dogs do indeed think about and plan for the future, including one about his dog, Odin, who clearly wanted to go for a walk. Dr. Coren notes that his own and other stories aren't scientific data but simply observations. He concludes, "However it is difficult to interpret my dog's behavior in any way other than to feel that it involved some kind of planning and anticipation of future events." I agree.

Dr. Coren's essay and some of the emails I received made me think more about this important question, and whether or not dogs had expectations of things to come. So, here are some observations and data to think about, which, in my humble opinion, show dogs do indeed think about and plan for the future. Some focus on studying social interactions among dogs and between dogs and other animals, including humans, contexts in which I think the best examples of future thinking and planning will likely be found. I fully realize that we need more data, but these observations -- often called "citizen science" -- taken as a whole, are data that can lead to more systematic studies of this intriguing question. It's been successfully argued that citizen science can play an important role in generating detailed research on dogs and other animals (for more discussion please see "Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research").

Pilfering food by faking that someone's at the front door

One example of thinking about and planning for the future centers on homes where at least two dogs reside. A story I've heard on numerous occasions basically goes like this: Joe and Mary, two dogs, are fed at the same time in separate bowls. Joe vacuums down his food and tries to get into Mary's dish. This doesn't work, so Joe runs to the front door barking as if someone is there, Mary follows him looking for whomever Joe is barking at, and Joe runs back and pilfers Mary's food. In some instances Mary, or other dogs whose food has been stolen, learn what's happening and can't be fooled. But, for two of my dogs, "Mary dogs" showed very slow learning curves and "Joe dogs" could trick them on far too many occasions. It seems clear that "Joe dogs" are thinking about and planning for the future and "Mary dogs" need to sharpen up their own cognitive skills so they don't continue to be fooled.

Anticipating routine walks

Another example, one about which Dr. Coren writes, is dogs knowing they're going to go on a walk, getting accustomed to routine, and also knowing when it's not going to happen. Odin, his canine companion, knew his walk wasn't going to happen, so he did all he could and surely had to have some future thinking when he did all he could to get the good doctor to walk him. Many people have told me stories like this, and if the dogs aren't thinking about the future, then it's a fair question to ask what are they thinking about?

Social play

I know two dogs -- Sadie, a small hairy mix of lots of different genes, and Roxy, a lean boxer mix -- who are clearly best friends and love to play with one another. When Sadie arrives at the dog park, she immediately sniffs and pees, checks out who’s there by lifting her head and sniffing, and then almost invariably runs back to the entrance to wait for Roxy, who, if she’s already at the dog park, races up to Sadie around 95 percent of the time (according to Roxy and Sadie’s humans). Then they play as if they were the only two dogs in the world.

However, an interesting thing happens on the days when Roxy doesn’t show. Sadie will pace along the fence line and look around, clearly wondering where Roxy is, even as other dogs come up to say hello and ask her to play. Sadie usually paces for around twenty seconds or so, which is all the time she needs to establish that Roxy is absent. At that point, Sadie goes off and finds other dogs to play with.

How does Sadie know so quickly that Roxy isn’t there? I have no idea, but when Sadie chooses to give up waiting and go find other friends to romp with, she is correct 99 percent of the time; Roxy isn’t coming. Clearly, Sadie is thinking about the future but somehow knows her expectations aren't going to be met and makes other plans.

Another example of thinking about and planning for the future centers on social play behavior. When dogs perform bows or other play soliciting signals to get other dogs to play, these actions change the meaning of subsequent behavior patterns that are usually seen in other contexts, such as biting and head-shaking, running into one another with reasonable speed and force, and mounting, for example. Playing dogs know that these signals are "all in play" and they think about and plan for future play based on these decisions. This is likely one reason why play only very rarely escalates into serious fighting. Dogs and other animals also fine-tune play-on-the-run, based on what has happened, is happening, and is like to happen. It also seems likely that dogs have what's called a Theory of Mind that shows itself when they playing socially and know what others are thinking and feeling and can predict what they are likely to do in the future. Dr. Coren also notes how important prediction is for dogs and other animals. For more details about the nature and dynamics of dog play please see references below.

Playing Frisbee

Courtesy of Katie Simmons
Source: Courtesy of Katie Simmons

Let's also consider dogs playing Frisbee, like Ari in the accompanying photo. Some dogs are expert Frisbee players and are able to follow a flying platter and somehow figure out when this platter will begin to descend and where it will be at the right height for them to grab it. Some people argue that this ability is instinctive and dogs use "instinctive arithmetic," similar to outfielders knowing where a baseball will land in their glove by following its trajectory. However, there are many good examples of dogs learning how to play Frisbee that clearly show they are learning to think about and plan for the future, and different teaching methods that show it's not as hard-wired as some people argue and that it can be a difficult skill to learn. In fact, one of my baseball-playing friends told me that he, too, thinks that there is a good deal of learning going on for outfielders and that he learned to track a ball by thinking about where it was likely to land by following it in the air. Suffice it to say, claiming Frisbee tracking is instinctive avoids numerous very interesting questions about how dogs learn to do so and the possible role of thinking about and planning for the Frisbee's future course.

Dog training

One other example of dogs thinking about and planning for the future focuses on dog training itself. I talked with someone about this as I'm not a trainer, and they mentioned that in their humble opinion, some, but not all training, involves getting dogs to think about the future consequences of their actions, especially those that they're not supposed to do, which is the basic reason why they need to be trained.

I agree that we need more data on the vexing questions of whether or not dogs think about and plan for the future, but the above examples, and I'm sure there are many more, strongly indicate that it will not be surprising to learn that well-planned empirical studies will support this reasonable suggestion. I fully realize that some researchers persist in looking for the simplest and most parsimonious explanation for all different sorts of behavior, arguing that hard-wired instinctive patterns prevail in many different sorts of social and non-social encounters. But, it's impossible to believe that everything dogs or other animals do is hard-wired. Along these lines, it's important to quote Dr. Coren:

Arguing from basic principles of what we know about dogs would lead us to believe that they must have some future thinking ability. From an evolutionary viewpoint dogs and their wild cousins would have to have had some sense of the future in order to be successful hunters. You really can't hope to hunt another animal unless you can anticipate what it is going to do next, and that is, after all, thinking into the future.

Also, dogs are social animals. The essence of social interactions and communications are that an individual has to be able to predict the effects that their behavior will have on the behavior of other individuals. This especially shows up in some of the recent research which looks at whether dogs can engage in deception or lying. Attempts at deceiving another individual indicate some future thought. The idea is that any form of lie or deception involves thought processes that go "If I do this, he will do that, and then I can do this other thing that I want."

Let's not underestimate what dogs are capable of absent detailed studies

In our book Species of Mind and elsewhere, Colin Allen and I have argued that cognitive explanations that appeal to thinking and planning can be simple explanations and they do not rely on everything, or just about everything, being hard-wired in anticipation of all of the social and non-social situations in which an individual will find her- or himself. So, dogs' ability to predict the behavior of others and also the flight pattern of a Frisbee, could easily rely on future thinking and planning and not depend on the hard-wiring of the innumerable future possible experiences of the individuals concerned. There's little reason to doubt that dogs and other nonhumans have expectations of things to come.

I look forward to more citizen science and especially focused research on future thinking and planning by dogs and other animals. An incredible amount of comparative data on the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals show how misleading it is to underestimate what dogs and other animals are capable of.


For more details about various aspects of play in dogs please see Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun," "Dog Play Is Socially Contagious and Now We Know Why," "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?", "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter," "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow," "Chimps Seem to Know What Others Know—So Do Dogs at Play," "Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug," and links therein.

People often worry about playing escalating into fighting. Data show that play only rarely escalates into aggression. For example, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations of wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play.