Karen B. London
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Can Dogs Pretend?
Perhaps they engage in “make-believe”

Snoopy loved to pretend. He pictured himself most commonly as a great hockey player, Joe Cool or as the World War I Flying Ace. It’s easy for readers of the Peanuts comic strip to accept the fantasy world of its canine star.

It’s much more challenging to know whether dogs in the real world can pretend. In Jason G. Goldman’s blog Animal Imagination: The Dog That Pretended to Feed a Frog (And Other Tales), he discusses some evidence that animals, including dogs, are able to pretend. He tells the story of a dog who placed a stuffed frog at his water bowl as though it was taking a drink. The dog arranged other toys nearby. This reminded the guardian of the way children play games of make-believe with their stuffed animals. It’s possible the dog was pretending, and also possible that she wasn’t. Without knowing what was going on in the dog’s mind, it’s tough to know whether the dog was pretending or not.

Goldman also discusses the possibility that dogs may be pretending when they play using behavior patterns borrowed from courtship, fighting or predation, though the evidence is not overly compelling. Observations of gorillas and chimpanzees using objects for other purposes, such as a log being treating as a baby, or miming the use of imaginary objects are more convincing demonstrations of pretending.

I remain undecided and eager for more evidence on the question of whether dogs other than Snoopy can pretend. Have you seen your dog behave in a way that seemed like pretending?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photo by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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Submitted by Lisa | November 7 2011 |

Sure, one of my dogs pretends all the time. She's pretty crafty and manipulative sometimes...

If she wants my dog Sophie to get off the bed so she can go under the covers, she'll sit on the floor and pretend that she wants to play with Sophie.

She'll do her "let's play" jump and bark, wagging her tail and generally pretending that she wants to have a game of tag with Sophie.

As soon as Sophie gets up and jumps onto the floor, ready to play, Faith takes her place on the bed.

Sophie falls for it most of the time, although it takes her longer now to respond than it used to. She's kind of like Charlie Brown, always being tricked into another game of football with Lucy (another "Peanuts" reference!).

Submitted by Kelly Martin | February 3 2012 |

hahaha my dogs do something similar, if one of the boys is lying on the couch, or with one of us and another wants the spot they will bark as if someone is at the door to get the other boys to leave the room then sneek up to take their place.

Submitted by Adela Dávila-Es... | November 7 2011 |

One day, my late dog Myroslava came from her daily walk with something in her mouth. She looked upset, distressed even, as she hurried in, tugging at her leash. Once inside our apartment, my husband let go of her alerting me to the fact that she carried something in her mouth and was whimpering. When we reached our bedroom, we found her on our bed, trying to place the object near her teats, as if wanting it to suckle. It turned out to be a rubber baby Pluto. She was washing it with her tongue, and sort of cuddling it.
You see, we had adopted Myroslava from a friend who had rescued her from the street and knew very little about her. As we discussed this behavior with our vet, all of us came to the conclusion she may have lost her puppies at some time and was treating this one as a dying pup, trying to revive it.
From then on, Myroslava would take great care to make sure her baby Pluto was always "comfortable". We know this because whenever we tried to place it in her toys basket, she would pick it up whimpering and would place it on our bed.
No matter how many times we took it away, she would pick it up from wherever it was and place it almost always near our pillows. Needless to say, we desisted from putting it elsewhere.
Myroslava passed two years ago this past October. It still hurts sooo much!

Submitted by Leanne | November 7 2011 |

I had a puppy once who played a game of hide and jump out to surprise with a friend of mine when he came to visit,they played this game regularly. One day I watched the puppy place her favorite toy where my friend would stand to play the game and she went to her hide spot then proceeded to jump out as if to surprise the toy like she did my friend. She was the most playful dog I have ever lived with and often played "pretend" type games that would leave me in wonder,she also was great at tail chaser.

Submitted by Masha | November 7 2011 |

My doxie has a tiny stuffed giraffe that he positioned to eat food from his bowl by the couch. He then walked away and hopped on the couch, where he then sat over the giraffe and growled at it. Finally, he jumped down, removed the giraffe and ate his food.

It was extremely interesting to watch. He often puts his toys in his food bowl and eats with them. Very amusing!

Submitted by Colleen | November 8 2011 |

Sure. Pretend. My dog does it all the time. Only I call it "lying." He makes like he has to go to bathroom and will sit at the top of the stairs. He's very convincing, let me tell ya! So, I leash him up, we go out to his designated potty spots... and well, he'll stand there and shoot the breeze. He didn't need to go to the bathroom. He just wanted to go out. And so he does what he needs to do in order to get out there..act like he needs to go to bathroom!

Submitted by Shan | November 10 2011 |

i absolutely believe dogs are capable of pretending and playing make believe. they're incredibly intelligent and full of surprises. my dog lulu is a spectacular pretend artist. :)

her favorite treats were carrots...then one fateful day she met cheesy flax treats. shortly after i decided to test her new found love for the cheesy goodness. i gave her a choice between the two, placing the carrot closest to her. she nudged the carrot with her nose and noshed on the flax treat with wild abandon. i gave her the carrot and told her to 'finish'. she put her paw on it and looked around as if she couldn't find it. after several attempts to get her to eat the carrot (and amazing amounts of hilarity) she picked it up, chewed twice, inconspicuously (not) dropped it, put her paw on top of it and continued to chew dramatically. she then FAKE swallowed the make believe carrot in her mouth. she followed it up with a *sigh* and laid her head down on her paw. moments later, when she thought i wasn't looking, she nudged the carrot out of her bed. :D

she also does the 'oh my gosh mommy, did you hear/see that' fake-out. i'll put a treat in front of her and she has to wait for me to say ok. typically it's just a few seconds but if she thinks it's been too long she'll perk up her ears and look off towards the door/window as if to say 'MOMMY, did you hear/see that?!' if i look, she sneaks the treat. if i don't she sighs and lays down...defeated. :)

she's hilarious and i look forward to each and every one of her games. :)

Submitted by Anonymous | November 20 2011 |

i do know that animals pretend. this is not about a dog but a male cat. the cat had 2 felt spider toys and for 9 years they were never touched by the owner or anyone. they would disapear and re-appear over 9 years. at times we would see the cat giving them a bath. i would say that was pretending.

Submitted by Kelly Martin | February 3 2012 |

My Dog Trigger is a border collie/Eskimo and he pretends all the time. When he wants your attention, he phantom barks he lays flat on his side, and stretches his legs out to kick us. When you look at him he turns his head slighty and pretends to bark at you, when you look away he does it again, he will do this for hours lol. He also takes toys and arranges them around the room sits in the middle of them and phantom barks at each of them until he settles on which ever suits him that moment.

Submitted by Dominic | January 14 2014 |

My dogs recent behaviour lead me to this page via a google search of whether or not dogs play make-believe. My dog, a 12-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, plays a certain carefree way with her toys. However, when I show her my wallet, she goes into absolute berserker mode, gnashing her teeth, bristling her back hair & barking so hard & so often she leaves herself out of breath. Now, where it gets interesting is that she seems to break in & out of character. If I distract her or suddenly demand her attention, at once she will pin her ears back, wag her tail & assume a very friendly posture, but the instant I antagonise her with the wallets presence again, she is immediately hostile in a very convincing manner again. When the wallet is put away for good, there is no cool-down period --- she simply snaps out of her apparent rage & seems to have forgotten the wallet was ever there. Is she make-believing she is in a real fight with a real enemy? It certainly appears to my untrained eye she is indulging what she seems to understand is a fantasy, rather than a genuinely furious reaction to a legitimate threat --- bit who can ever say for sure???

Submitted by Tori | January 31 2014 |

Ah my dog pretends he has injuries when he wants to go back inside. I caught on after he limped on our walk then took off after the cats as soon as we entered the house. He pretends he can't jump on the bed so that I will help him up. (I've seen him jump on that bed! The little faker...) As for play, he loves to play with the cats. It's so cute because the play back. :) The cats are so cute! They bop him on the head and take off. Watching them chase each other around the house is like watching kids playing tag. That isn't pretend but it is cute.... I did have a dog that would use him stuffed animals as pacifiers though....

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