Do Dogs Play “Make-Believe?”

6 Sep

This is a personal post, but interesting in terms of animal behavior. As Jason knows, my dog Happy is pretty intelligent. She understands a handful of spoken words and hand signals, and can even recognize written words as if “appearing” to read.

But this afternoon Happy did something unusual. She carried a toy frog over to her water bowl, and gently put it down as pictured. Given its orientation, I’m skeptical that her placement was an accident.

The frog continues to sit like this (20 minutes later) as Happy arranges other toys nearby. Now I admit I may be anthropomorphizing, but her behavior sure reminds me of a child playing “make believe” with stuffed animals.

So with that I’ll turn to Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods at Duke’s Canine Cognition Center to find out about imagination in dogs. (I’ll also be speaking at IdeaFestival shortly before dog whisperer Cesar Millan, so I’ll see what he has to say too).

Have readers had experiences like this? I’m interested to hear your thoughts..

8 Responses to “Do Dogs Play “Make-Believe?””

  1. Linda September 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    HAPPY is beautiful and apparently intelligent too.

  2. Jeremy September 6, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Sheril, that is adorable.

    I often think about what it must be like to be surrounded by animals that are not your species. Dogs genuinely want to find new ways to “chat” with you. His little froggy friend needed a drink too, obviously. :)

  3. Janet Factor September 6, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    It seems most likely to me, knowing canine psychology, that Happy has bonded with these stuffed animal pets as members of her pack—or possibly as her own puppies. She sees them that way and consequently treats them that way. Bringing them to the food and water dishes is an expression of her social connection to them: she is sharing resources.

    • Gregg Bender September 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

      I agree with Janet. One of our Shelties has bonded with his stuffed Sheltie toy and he takes it on patrols around our home after meals that follow a regular route and always end with him depositing “Big Puppy” at my feet. He did this entirely on his own with no training whatsoever. We call him “Uncle Rico” and praise him for it now. He acts very pleased with himself both during and afterwards. What else could this be?

  4. Sheril Kirshenbaum September 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm #


  5. Lindsay September 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    That’s really cute. My dog knows a lot of toys by name and had several soft toys until she shredded them to bits. Interestingly, if you ask her for a soft toy she’s shredded, she’ll bring you one of the pieces!

    Although, isn’t asking Cesar Millan a dog psychology question a bit like asking Joe Mercola a health question?

  6. Mike September 6, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    My cat has been doing this for years… she has a small stuffed cat that she will carry around in her mouth… occasionally my family will find it in the food dish, water bowl, and litter box…

  7. Deirdre Rand December 7, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    Yes, Sheril, I’ve had experiences like this with an Australian Cattle Dog named Bella. Bella makes constructions with her cloth toys, including some stuffed toy dogs, which she sometimes treats as if they were her “pups.” Our vet thinks Bella’s herding and maternal instincts are contributing factors. You can see pics of what Bella does on the website I created for her at

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