Do Dogs Think About and Plan For the Future?

Humans might not be the only creatures that anticipate what's next.

Posted Dec 28, 2017

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

One of the top dog trainers in North America recently sent me the following question: 

"I've found studies that prove that dogs have episodic-like memories but I can't find any studies that test whether or not they can think into the future (or if it is even possible to test this). Are you aware of any?"

It turns out that this is a really difficult question and science has not yet found a definitive answer. I have been waiting and hoping that some of the active canine behavior groups, like Adam Miklósi's lab in Hungary or Friederike Range's lab in Vienna, would do this kind of research. I believe that Sylvain Gagnon and François Doré at the University of Montréal made a bit of the start on answering this some years ago. My memory is a bit weak on the specifics but I think that their setup was that a ball or something rolled behind a screen of some sort and they observed whether the dog simply went to chase the ball or ran to the other side of the screen in anticipation of the ball rolling out on the other side. Of course running to the other side to wait for the ball to re-emerge would certainly show some form of thinking and planning for a future event, and that is what these researchers observed.

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."

There is of course a lot of anecdotal evidence which suggests that dogs do have the ability to think about future events (and I'm not talking about the clairvoyance stuff which seems to fill up the Internet). I have certainly written about some of these instances and observations which suggest that dogs have some concept of future outcomes and some ability to plan for them. One of my favorites involved my dearly loved flat-coated retriever Odin. In this instance what he did reminded me of the philosophies of the Greek philosophers Plato and Diogenes who believed that dogs had a higher level of thinking ability and that they could logically think about not just the past and present, but also the future.

As I recollect what happened, it was one cold rainy day in Vancouver. I was feeling too tired and physically uncomfortable to take my dogs on their usual morning walk which meant that they had to content themselves with being let out in the yard for a short while. For my very active black retriever, Odin, this simply was not an acceptable situation and, late in the afternoon, I was disturbed from my reading by a clatter at my feet. I looked down and noticed that Odin had somehow found his leash and deposited it on the floor. I picked it up, put it on the sofa next to me, and gave him a pat and a reassuring "Later, Odin."

A few minutes passed and there was another clatter at my feet; I found that Odin had now deposited one of my shoes beside me. When I didn't respond, he quickly retrieved the other shoe and put it down next to me. Obviously, to his mind, I was being quite dense or stubborn, since I still delayed going out into the cold and wet weather.

It was at that moment that Odin ran to the door and gave a familiar bark. It was a distinctive sound that he only used when my wife, Joan, was approaching the door. I had spent several years teaching at a university in New York City and had developed the habit typical of New Yorkers, which involves always locking doors, even on days when I was inside working at home. This tended to annoy Joan, who grew up in the safer and less paranoid environment of Alberta, Canada. So when Odin gave his "Joan is here" bark, I got up to unlock the door rather than leave her fumbling for her keys in the rain and getting annoyed with my inconvenient habit. As soon as I got within a foot or two of the door, Odin dashed back to the sofa and grabbed his leash. Before I had even determined that Joan's car had not arrived in its usual place, he was nudging my hand with the leash he carried in his mouth.

I started to laugh at his subterfuge. I could imagine his mental discourse of the past few minutes running something like "I want a walk, so here's my leash.—OK, I've brought you your shoes, so let's walk.—All right now, while you're already standing at the door, and while I'm now offering you the leash, why don't we just take that walk?" I have obviously added to Odin's behavior a whole lot of reasoning, an internal dialogue, and the idea that there was some kind of conscious planning involved; however, these behaviors certainly would have been consistent with his actions. And, by the way, I did reward him for his attempts at trying to shape the future by giving him his walk.

This is not scientific data, of course, but simply an observation. 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.

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