Dogs steal more in the dark, says new study. My cat suggests otherwise

German an British researchers – with a lot of food for bait – have concluded dogs steal more food in the dark. One dog-and-cat owner is skeptical: Cats may be framing the dogs.


A new study has just proved something every dog owner knows, be the dog Westminster-worthy, or household Heinz-57 mix breed, “Dogs steal in the dark.” I would add to that, cats steal 'round the clock while twitching their hind ends at you in broad daylight and don't care who knows it.

It seems two issues that we can’t study enough are the misbehaviors of pets and children. While humans dog their kids on Facebook when they’re naughty, there’s now a popular website dedicated to shaming our dogs

Kidding aside, for only a moment, the study by Juliane Kaminski, University of Portsmouth, UK and Andrea Pitsch and Michael Tomasello, both of The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig, Germany deals with a series of experiments in which a human, a dog, and some food the dog was told not to touch, were placed in a room in various lighting conditions to see if the dog's obedience would alter.

Every dog had eight trials in each condition: human plus light, human minus light, light minus human and dark minus human. In all cases the food was present.

The conditions, according to the study were as follows: “The dogs had to pass a pre-test to participate in the study. This was conducted to ensure that the dogs understood the commands used by the experimenter. After the experimenter and the dog entered the room the experimenter took a piece of food, showed it to the dog, and walked to the predetermined location. Then the experimenter called the dog’s name to get his attention. While saying ‘Aus’ or ‘Nein’ (German: ‘Do not take it!’) with a strong, low-pitched voice she put the food on the ground at the marked position. 

The command was repeated as often as required – until the dog stopped trying to eat the food. Then the experimenter slowly walked backward and sat on the ground at the predetermined location. The trial ended after 60 seconds had elapsed without the dog taking the food. After the 60 seconds had elapsed, the dog was encouraged to take the food with the words ‘Geh ab!’ or ‘Jetzt nimm’s!’ (German for ‘You can take it now!’).”

They lost me right there because my dog, Wag, would just stare interestedly at my pointing finger, get bored and start licking himself inappropriately and then look up in astonishment when I'd say “Aus! Nein! No! Eeeeew!” in a low, firm, grossed-out tone.

Back to the study and dogs that are actually trained and bilingual, because assuming the dogs speak human and German Human was just given. They also, hilariously, assumed that, “It is unlikely that the dogs simply forgot that the human was in the room when she was not illuminated.”

I could not compose myself after reading that line because my collie-poodle “cadoodle” dog greets me like I've just walked in the front door when I leave the room to get a cup of coffee and return. “Hey! You're here! I can't get over it,” is what he seems to say as he recovers from the shock. 

So while dogs may indeed be more prone to dark deeds when the lights are off, the next time anybody does a study about food being swiped in the dark where a dog is taking the fall for the crime, I think they should first check the building for cat burglars.

In the interest of science, I called my friend Arthur Bowman of Norfolk State University's biology department and director of Science Everywhere LLC (an educational consulting group) and asked him to read the study and give me his cursory impressions. “Well, the thing about dogs is not really their eyes so much as their sense of smell,” he explained over coffee this morning. “Dogs have about 20-square-inches of surface area for smell receptors, while we humans only have about one-half a square-inch.

Dr. Bowman added, “This was a hard-to-repeat study because what's dark to one person may not be dark to another and may not be dark at all to a dog.

“Also, dogs being trained is a big variable because dogs are all over the place in terms of their conditioning,” he said. For this one biologist it came down to “too many variables.” 

That's the whole dog ballgame right there, especially for those who recently watched the Westminster Dog event and saw dogs that are at the top of their game and well-bred failing to follow a simple “Aus” or Nein” on stage.

Having a canine companion, I was perhaps a bit more drawn to what folks in Portsmouth, UK and Leipsig, Germany name their dogs and so I loved reading the names of the “participant” canines and trying to guess from which location they hailed. Give it a try: Baska, Luna, Alina, Pepe, Amy, Wolf, Richard, Juri, Chico, Rocky, Thyson, Kimi, Lucie, Jazz, Merlin, Loki, Alma, Baghira, Asta, Max, Rudi, Jerry–Lee, Zosi, Jack, Stoffel, Bacardi, Ronja, Mean, Median, and Quartile.

In our house, no matter what the lighting conditions, poor old Wag is continually framed by our two cats Bella and Cat2 for food theft. Yesterday I caught Cat2 as she dragged a plastic bag (with three bagels she'd been trying to gnaw) off the dining room table and over to the spot on the floor where Wag slept.

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