Can Dogs Imagine?

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Introduction

Imagination is a huge part of the human species. It is particularly important when we are young - and often is the most vivid and colorful when we are a child. Children's imaginations can be so vivid that it can seem almost as real as if the event they were making up was actually happening. 

Since we have such advanced imaginations, you have probably wondered if other animals can use their imagination as well or if they even have them at all. Perhaps you have particularly wondered about your furry friend's ability to use imagination. So, can dogs imagine?

Although the answer is not black and white, some research suggests dogs can use their imagination to a certain extent.

Signs of a Dog Using Their Imagination

Although it is possible that dogs can use their imagination to certain extents, it can be very challenging to pinpoint exact signs that your dog is using their imagination at any given moment. Not much research has been done in the area of dog imagination, so knowing what signs to look for presents an issue. 

Since pretend-play and imagination is a spontaneous occurrence you would have to keep a very close eye on your dog to tell whether or not they may be engaging in a pretend-play scenario. You know your dog's behavior the best, so much of what they do when they play will determine whether or not they are playing with their imagination. 

One sign your dog may be using their imagination when they are playing is if they chase their tail. Although it is not confirmed if they chase their tail merely as a form of play or if they are pretending to catch and kill prey, this may be a sign they are using their imagination. 

Furthermore, if your dog attacks their water bowl or other inatimate objects from time to time, they may also be engaging in pretend play where they are pretending their food bowl is another animal or prey they are trying to hunt. 

Body Language

These are some signs you may notice if your dog is using their imagination:

  • Alert
  • Tail up
  • Spinning
  • Play bowing

Other Signs

Here are some other signs your dog is using their imagiation:
  • Attacking their food bowl/other objects
  • Chasing their tail
  • Reacting without stimuli

History of Dogs Using Their Imagination

We know very little about animals using their imaginations and not much research has been done about imagination in dogs, wolves, coyotes, or other canines. Even less is known about the use of imagination and pretend-play in wolves when dogs were undomesticated many thousands of years ago. 

Because of this, not much definitive proof or answers can be drawn and understood from the past. What we do know is that dogs and ancestors of dogs use activities like mating, hunting, and fighting as a form of play. What remains unclear is whether or not these animals are just taking their experiences in hunting and mating and reenacting the movements from these activities from instinct or if they are consciously thinking about fighting or mating with a partner in a pretend scenario.  

We do hear some stories about dog owners who believe they have caught their dog engaging in pretend-play. 

For instance, one lady observed her dog placing their toy frog directly in front of their water bowl as if to simulate the frog going to get a drink of water. Whether or not the dog consciously made this decision or if it was just a coincidence is unknown, but it does make one wonder how much a dog can actually use their imagination. 

Science Behind Dogs Using Their Imagination

As we have discussed, there is little-to-no research on pretend-play and imagination in dogs. However, the little evidence there is does suggest there is some correlation between animals using imagination under certain circumstances. 

For instance, if your dog is using a behavior from one activity, like attacking a squirrel, and place that activity into a different activity, like attacking their food bowl, they may be repurposing those behaviors in a playful way - leading to the idea they are using their imagination. 

If this is the case, scientists do believe that the dog may not actually understand what they are doing in pretending or using their imagination. 

Studies show that children under the age of four years old do not understand that imagination is an act of the mind and not the body. This suggests that if dogs and other animals really do imagine, they likely have the same imagination capacity of a human child this is younger than four years old. 

Training Dogs to Use Their Imagination

You cannot train your dog to use their imagination or pretend-play like a young child might. If your dog is going to engage in pretend-play, they will do so on their own accord and you cannot force this type of behavior. Pretend play is a spontaneous occurrence, so if you want the chance to observe your dog partaking in pretend play, your best bet is to keep a close eye on them at all times of the day. 

You are most likely to catch your dog using their imagination when they begin to chase their tails, bite them, and spin in circles. You can also look out for something a bit more complex. If your dog happens to have a dominant personality, they may pretend like they are the non-dominant dog when they are playing at certain times. 

This behavior is known as "self-handicapping." Your dog may seem to play as if they are no longer the dominant dog. Dogs generally do this as a way to get another animal or person to play with them if the other being does not seem to be interested in playing at that specific moment.

Perhaps your dog has tried to instigate you into playing with them by sitting in front of you, staring at you, trying to get your attention in hopes that you will make a move to start playing with them. As soon as you go to move, your dog will play bow or run away so you will get out and chase them even more. This action might suggest they are pretending to be submissive in an attempt to play or start a game. 

How to React if Your Dog Uses Their Imagination:

  • Take some videos!
  • Let them play as they want.
  • Observe their actions.

Safety Tips for When Dogs are Using Their Imagination:

  • Make sure they don't harm items or people.
  • Don't let them get too aggressive.

We Want to Hear About Your Dog Using Their Imagination!