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Dogs Steal in the Dark

Dogs understand what we can or can't see and take advantage of the situation.

Photo Creative Commons Licence CC0
Source: Photo Creative Commons Licence CC0

"My dog, Roxy, is like one of those super thieves that you see in heist movies or on television. She has learned how to steal when she can't be seen or is under cover of darkness. Unfortunately my husband, Ralph, doesn't believe that dogs can really be that clever." The woman who was talking to me was in her late 20s and was holding a leash that was attached to handsome black labrador retriever who stood on her left. On her other side stood a sandy-haired man who appeared to be a few years older, and seemed to be a bit uncomfortable at being singled out as an object of discussion.

"Let me explain the situation to you," she continued. "We also own a cat, Misty, and Roxy loves the cat's food. When she was a puppy she would grab the cat's food the moment I put the bowl down. But I scolded her, and now she'll look at the food but not try to take it as long as I'm in the room, or as long as she thinks I'm watching. Sometimes the cat is slow at coming to her food bowl, so if I have to leave the kitchen I leave the light on so I can see through the kitchen door to where the bowl is. Roxy will come to the kitchen door and look at me in the living room, and then back at the bowl, but she won't try to take the food.

"Recently Ralph has been on a kick about saving electrical energy, so whenever he sees the kitchen light on, and I'm not in the room, he turns it off. Since we live in an apartment and there are no windows in the kitchen it gets pretty dark in there. Very often when I return to the kitchen, I find that Misty's bowl is empty, however she is pacing around the room, making those demanding sounds that cats make when they are expecting their food and it's not there. This last time I bent down next to Roxy's face and sniffed and I could smell the cat food on her breath, so I knew that she had taken the food in the dark. Ralph doesn't believe that our dog is clever enough to understand that it is less likely that I'll see her in the dark and to then use that opportunity to violate our orders not to touch the cat food. He says that as long as the dog can see me clearly she'll figure that she is being watched and stay away from Misty's food."

I think that I must have smiled as I replied to Roxy's owner. "You probably don't know it but you have actually virtually repeated part of an experiment that was conducted a few years ago by a team of researchers headed by Juliane Kaminski, who is now at the University of Portsmouth's Psychology Department. She was interested in the question of how good a theory of mind dogs have."

Theory of mind in this instance does not refer to some technical speculation as to how the brain works, but rather refers to the ability to understand that another individual might have a different amount of information, see the world in a different way, or even have different desires and motives then another individual. In human children an accurate theory of mind develops slowly, over the first five years of life. Before it is fully developed a young child does not recognize that the world might appear different to somebody else with a different perspective. As an example, suppose that a mother is curious as to what her toddler is doing in the next room. Since he is out of sight she calls out "What are you doing out there Tommy?" Tommy replies "I'm playing with this." Since his mother is not in the same room with him and obviously can't see what "this" is, this indicates that Tommy has not yet developed an accurate theory of mind. He does not understand that what he is currently seeing is not necessarily what his mother is seeing at the same time from her perspective in the other room.

Once the theory of mind has developed an individual can recognize that other individuals don't necessarily have the same perspective and that the kind of visual information that they have might be different. At this point the possibility for taking advantage of the situation arises. In other words the possibility for deception and stealthy stealing has now also developed. Since dogs have a mind which is roughly equivalent to a human two- to three-year-old, the possibility is that dogs have enough of a theory of mind so that they can recognize when their owner can see what they are doing and when their owner cannot. Will dogs use the fact that their owner can't see them at a particular moment to take something which they want, but which they have been instructed not to touch?

Kaminski and her team set up a simple situation. They took a group of dogs who had been instructed not to touch a bit of food. The room was then darkened and there were only two potential light sources, one of which illuminated the location of the food, while the other illuminated their owner. If both lights were turned off the investigators found that the dogs were roughly four times more likely to steal food that they had been forbidden as compared to when the lights were turned on. In other words, the dogs recognized that the human could not see them in the darkness and therefore took advantage of the situation. Further analysis showed that the important thing was not whether or not the dog could see their owner because he or she was in the light, but rather whether the food was in the dark. Because of his theory of mind the dog was capable of reasoning "If the food is in the dark, then that same darkness could conceal me and give me a chance of stealing it without being seen by my human."

The fact that dogs are able to recognize what people are paying attention to, and what information their visual perspective is likely to provide, is important to psychologists since it is further evidence that dogs do have capabilities which are similar to that of young children. This is all part of a growing body of data which says that dogs are paying close attention to the humans around them and trying to tease out what is going on in our minds. Dogs do this by by analyzing what we are looking at (click here for an example), and after they do that the dogs tend to modify their behaviors to match our responses (click here for an example).

After explaining all of this I then suggested "So you can spend the few extra pennies to leave the light on in the kitchen until your cat has eaten her food, or otherwise learn to put up with the fact that your dog will continue to take advantage of the darkness to mask her thievery. Of course another alternative is to simply place the cat's food bowl up on the kitchen counter where the dog can't reach it but the cat can. Then you don't need to be vigilant or worry about power consumption."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch & Michael Tomasello (2013). Dogs steal in the dark. Animal cognition, 16, 385-394. DOI 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6

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