National Geographic News
A dog eats food left on a kitchen counter.

Dogs will steal your food if they think it's dark enough for you not to notice.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Kate Andries

National Geographic News

Published February 15, 2013

Many dog owners will swear their pups are up to something when out of view of watchful eyes. Shoes go missing, couches have mysterious teeth marks, and food disappears. They seem to disregard the word "no."

Now, a new study suggests dogs might understand people even better than we thought. (Related: "Animal Minds.")

The research shows that domestic dogs, when told not to snatch a piece of food, are more likely to disobey the command in a dark room than in a lit room.

This suggests that man's best friend is capable of understanding a human's point of view, said study leader Juliane Kaminski, a psychologist at the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth.

"The one thing we can say is that dogs really have specialized skills in reading human communication," she said. "This is special in dogs." (Read "How to Build a Dog.")

Sneaky Canines

Kaminski and colleagues recruited 84 dogs, all of which were more than a year old, motivated by food, and comfortable with both strangers and dark rooms.

The team then set up experiments in which a person commanded a dog not to take a piece of food on the floor and repeated the commands in a room with different lighting scenarios ranging from fully lit to fully dark.

They found that the dogs were four times as likely to steal the food—and steal it more quickly—when the room was dark. (Take our dog quiz.)

"We were thinking what affected the dog was whether they saw the human, but seeing the human or not didn't affect the behavior," said Kaminski, whose study was published recently in the journal Animal Cognition.

Instead, she said, the dog's behavior depended on whether the food was in the light or not, suggesting that the dog made its decision based on whether the human could see them approaching the food.

"In a general sense, [Kaminski] and other researchers are interested in whether the dog has a theory of mind," said Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard University, who was not involved in the new study.

Something that all normal adult humans have, theory of mind is "an understanding that others have different perspective, knowledge, feelings than we do," said Horowitz, also the author of Inside of a Dog.

Smarter Than We Think

While research has previously been focused on our closer relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—interest in dog cognition is increasing, thanks in part to owners wanting to know what their dogs are thinking. (Pictures: How smart are these animals?)

"The study of dog cognition suddenly began about 15 years ago," Horowitz said.

Part of the reason for that, said Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Lab and author of The Genius of Dogs, is that "science thought dogs were unremarkable."

But "dogs have a genius—years ago we didn't know what that was," said Hare, who was not involved in the new research. (See pictures of the the evolution of dogs, from wolf to woof.)

Many of the new dog studies are variations on research done with chimpanzees, bonobos, and even young children. Animal-cognition researchers are looking into dogs' ability to imitate, solve problems, or navigate social environments.

So just how much does your dog understand? It's much more than you—and science—probably thought.

Selectively bred as companions for thousands of years, dogs are especially attuned to human emotions—and, study leader Kaminski said, are better at reading human cues than even our closest mammalian relatives.

"There has been a physiological change in dogs because of domestication," Duke's Hare added. "Dogs want to bond with us in ways other species don't." (Related: "Dogs' Brains Reorganized by Breeding.")

While research reveals more and more insight into the minds of our furry best friends, Kaminski said, "We still don't know just how smart they are."

15 comments
Jamie Meriwether
Jamie Meriwether

I don't know why you'd need a study to figure this out. Heck, my dog knows as soon as I stand up and turn away from food that I might not notice her taking a piece of it! (She's also been know to try to take things if I rest my eyes for a minute.) Of course, if I look back as she's doing it, she gives me one of those "So sorry, my bad!" head bows that dogs give when they know they're overstepping their bounds- so it's not that she thinks that the alpha is done with it and it's her turn- no, she just wants to steal a bite!

Marianne Keller
Marianne Keller

I am looking for a behavioural study with no anthpomorphistic overtones, like that the dogs steal the food because the human can't see them, since they have "theory of mind" When did dogs learn about humans not being able to see in the dark? Anyone that ever had to do with dogs, will notice that their motivation picks up at dusk or dawn, as it used to be the time for a more successful hunt. Time to grab a piece of meat of the bench too. Apart from this the dogs eyes are more adapted to night vision then day vision.
Dogs can also learn to be "sneaky", if the person being in the room stops them every time and there is no stopping them, when there is no supervision. Same goes for dim (everyone asleep) and light rooms (possible supervision), with dogs that have been "trained" for a year, simply by living with humans.

Sue Bonness
Sue Bonness

While I think this is an interesting study, I believe the conclusion as proof of "theory of mind" is a bit of a stretch.I can think of many reasons the dogs took food in the dark.

One is that they could see the owners facial or body cues as well in the dark.Perhaps the owner did not see the dog as well and did not give the same cues to the dog. Plus, what is the dog's reinforcement history for taking food in the dark?When they can and do “sneak:”’ food is quite easily a learned response, not an "intuitive" one.

Kevin Moulton
Kevin Moulton

Have any of the scientists in this study actually ever had a dog? Did someone actually fund this?

You mean, dogs may understand people better than YOU thought. Don't speak for the rest of us.

Borden Sankey-Bleich
Borden Sankey-Bleich

I like what the vet says (we are not alpha like alpha dogs they will attack to control, we are more like parents we discipline with kindness)

One of our dogs a Mini Poodle can do things like open the garbage pail, we told him not too now he leaves it alone now. He will take us to the object usually food and make head motions to let us know what he wants. 

Another dog we have is a Toy Pomeranian when you get the tooth brush out he knows we are going out and gets excited, once the scarf is on the change shows as he is now on duty. He works under the dog therapy program.

Both dogs feel better when they have a job to do and they have a large vocabulary probably 2000 words or more.

Sarah Howarth
Sarah Howarth

my ferrets do exactly the same thing, they won't put a toe out of line until i step out of the room, they can turn out my whole room in the time it takes me to make a coffee, i come back to a trail of destruction, they know they get a tap on the nose for being naughty and they've learnt very quickly to wait until i leave the room before they cause any damage...imagine what a dog is capable of!

Carine Keersmaekers
Carine Keersmaekers

All dog lovers already know how smart they are, and probably more.  Is it now true because of science prove?

Once, just after lunch, when everybody was outside enjoying the sun, suddenly our tallest dog jumped in the house and came back - very proud- with a half bread! She was waiting until nobody was in the house.

Meg Mantz
Meg Mantz

My yellow lab has gotten very bad at taking any food off our kitchen counter when we are not in the room or not at home. She has gotten to the point of even ripping open tupperware. I do think dogs know when we are looking, and when we aren't that it is 'okay' to break the rules they know so well when humans are around. 

This article really didn't tell me anything i didn't already suspect but i would be very interested to see the future studies on dogs. 

My smaller 12 pound terrier who was an adoptee has gotten great at comforting me when he senses something is wrong but will also leave if he feels anger in the room of people at all.

Do more studies and let us know what the results are! its very interesting because dog is man's best friend!

Stuart Hall
Stuart Hall

Just checking, but isn't that the 'University of Portsmouth' - located on Winston Churchill Avenue in Portsmouth, UK?

Matthew Bowler
Matthew Bowler

This was a silly experiment.  If I leave food on the table my dog will not jump on the chair (even though that is her usual lookout spot next to the window).  She knows that it is not hers until I give it to her and she respects my food and gives it and me space.  This would not be the case if I was not the pack leader.  I believe that if the lights go out she thinks I am done, going to sleep, and the left overs are fair game.  She will wait until her turn and lights going out are a good signal.

tony nguyen
tony nguyen

Does that mean cockroachs are smart too?

joe socal
joe socal

@Borden Sankey-Bleich 

Is your mini poodle a teacup poodle? What about your toy pomeranian, is that a teacup pomeranian? I have read that there is no such thing as teacup poms. But there are numerous websites out there with information about these mini pomeranians.  

Rodman Papros
Rodman Papros

@tony nguyen haha! . . . good conclusion you've got there buddy . . . or a hypothesis to another experiment . . .

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