"Professor, Does My Dog Know I'm Blind?"

Can we know what animals know about what we know?

Posted Dec 05, 2010


Even at three in the morning, the interview seemed to be going fairly well until a guy I will call Leo phoned in. First he asked me a question about why people love their pets but then he blurted, "Professor, do you think my dog knows I'm blind?"

The question stopped me cold. I had no idea that Leo was blind and I didn't know if his dog did either. But Leo had raised a complicated issue - what do our pets know about the inner lives of their owners? First, I fumbled around a little, but then I confessed to the show's 4.5 million listeners that I didn't really have clue about what Leo's dog thought about his owner's limited visual abilities.

Leo's question nagged me for the next couple of weeks. I am not a dog expert but I did meet some first rate dog researchers while writing my book. I decided see how they would answer Leo's question and started firing off e-mails to them. Their responses were more nuanced than I can do justice to in a 1,000 word blog post, but I can give you a sense of their thinking. (For a list of people on the "panel" and some of their e-mails, see the "Comments" at the end of this post.)

What the Experts Said

As you might expect, nine of the world's foremost canine ethologists did not all approach Leo's question the same way, but they did agree that he had raised some fascinating issues. Patricia McConnell summarized the general feeling among my ad hoc panel when she wrote, "I doubt that anyone knows the answer to Leo's question. But what great research project this would be!" Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff  and ASPA scientific advisor Steve Zawistowski both pointed out that dogs do not have the abstract mental concept of "seeing" so Leo's dog would not, at least in a literal sense, know what blindness is. PT blogger Stanley Coren, however, argued that dogs do have a "theory of mind" in that they will turn to their owners for advice by looking at their faces when confronted with a novel problem they have to solve. (Another of my experts, Adam Miklosi has demonstrated that this is one of the differences between domestic dogs and wolves.)

What About Seeing-Eye Dogs?

But what about trained guide dogs? I vaguely recall mumbling on the radio that night that a seeing-eye dog would surely know that its owner was blind. Was I correct? Three of my experts (Brian Hare, James Serpell, and Adam Miklosi) referred me to a set of elegant experiments recently conducted by a French cognitive ethologist named Florence Gaunet. If I was right, guide dogs should be less prone than pet dogs of sighted owners to look toward their owners' faces for help when it comes to, say, locating hidden food or soliciting a round of play. To my surprise, however, Gaunet found that this was not the case. Indeed, in one of the articles she flat out wrote,"Guide dogs do not understand that their owners cannot see them."

I appeared that I had mislead Leo and four and a half million of his fellow insomniacs when I blithely proclaimed on the radio that seeing-eye dogs realize that their owners are blind. Oops....

Are Pet Dogs Different?

But then James Serpell pointed out to me that the results of experiments on guide dogs might not apply to pets. As Steve Zawistowski suggested, whether pet dogs know their owners are visually impaired might depend, for example, on whether the owner lost their sight gradually or abruptly. And Barnard College's Alexandra Horowitz hypothesized that a pet dog could figure out that its owner was blind but would probably not know what blindness actually entails.

But leave it to canine ethology gadfly Clive Wynne to come up with a case of a dog that clearly knew its owner was blind and even used this knowledge to circumvent our expectations of canine good manners. I'll let Clive speak for himself:

Hal, I was recently told a story by a dog trainer that is relevant to Leo's question. She had "inherited" a dog from a blind lady who passed on to her. Soon after acquiring the dog, the trainer came downstairs to the kitchen. She was not terribly surprised to see the dog on the kitchen counter helping itself to some food that had been left out. What surprised her was that the dog, on hearing her footsteps on the stairs, did nothing to jump down. Instead the dog continued to eat! It was accustomed to the idea that just because a human was in the room, that did not mean that the human could detect her presence on the forbidden kitchen counter. This dog clearly knew what it meant for a human to be blind.

What Does It All Mean?

The bottom line is that even the best scientists are unsure whether Leo's dog knows that Leo can't see. Though it has not been done, we could easily design an experiment to find out whether the pets of sighted and blind individuals treat their owners differently. But Leo raised the much more difficult question - what do our pets think about us? Leo has reminded me of the essay "What Is It Like To Be a Bat" by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. (Nagel concluded that we can never know what a bat's mental world is like.)

But Leo goes a step further than the philosopher. He asks, Can we ever really know what a dog knows about what its owner knows?  With apologies to Bill Clinton, I suppose it depends on what the meaning of the word know is.

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Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals (Harper, September 2010).