A Generous Dog: Canine Cognition Caught On Video

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Screenshot from a YouTube video posted on Dec. 8, 2015, by Lance Ellis of a toddler painting with the tail of the family dog.

A dog video popped up in my Facebook feed this week that I'd never before seen, though it was originally posted late last year. It's clearly a home video, not always perfectly in focus, but in just two minutes tells an intriguing story.

A young girl, engrossed in an art project, dips the family dog's tail into shallow little cups of paint, then brushstrokes across her paper with the tail tip.

Sure, it's a cute video.

And yes — inevitably — it has sparked discussion about whether it's fair to the dog. (More on that in a minute.)

But mostly it struck me that maybe this glimpse into a dog's day could offer some insights into dog cognition generally. It sure seemed to me, judging from the dog's body posture, facial expression and gaze that he was just a little uncomfortable with the proceedings.

I guessed that he was making a pretty smart and sensitive decision: to accommodate the behavior of a family member he knows well, one who is young and with benign intentions.

I'm no dog expert, but luckily I know Marc Bekoff. He's professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author and editor of numerous books including Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. We exchanged emails on Tuesday about the video.

Bekoff, it quickly became evident, had concerns about what he saw.

"If she were my child," he told me, "I would have stopped it as soon as possible. I fully recognize that the likelihood that something 'bad' would happen is very low, but if something did it would be tragic on all accounts, for the child, her family and, of course, the dog. There are many other ways to have fun with one's family dog."

I take Bekoff's point: After all, if it's worth consulting a dog expert, it's worth listening to what he has to say!

The dog, thankfully, is untethered and free to get up and leave, and the videographer cautions the child: "Be gentle with him." So there's some monitoring going on: Both of these factors are all to the good. I imagine that knowledge of the dog's personality played a role in what was allowed to happen.

It turns out that Bekoff did see an accommodation process in the works:

"To me, it's clear that the dog is tense and unsure of what is happening, but at the same time is making allowances for the young girl who he knows well.

Dogs and other animals often allow young individuals to play roughly or in ways they don't necessarily like and would not tolerate from older animals. People who study play call this self-handicapping, which occurs when animals don't play as roughly as they can and want to try to even the playing field."

In other words, it's unlikely this dog would tolerate tail-painting from an adult (or from a rowdy child).

There's canine perspective-taking going on here as well as a canine version of generosity. The dog is able to step out of his own viewpoint of the world, assess what this child's intentions are likely to be, and adjust his own choices about what to do accordingly.

Two years ago, Bekoff talked with the Washington Post about the moral code we may recognize in communication between dogs themselves. Self-handicapping is part of that, as the Post noted in describing Bekoff's observations:

"When a big dog played with a smaller one, for example, the big dog often rolled on her back to give the smaller dog an advantage, and she allowed the other dog to jump on her far more often than she jumped on him."

A 2016 article on animal behavior reports that "self-handicapping is observed in diverse species including domestic dogs, wallabies and primates." Here we see just another way that animals use their keen intelligence in their everyday social lives.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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