A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Do Dogs Know When Their Person Is Blind?

The call-in show question that stumped me

By Hal Herzog

Everything was going well on a two-hour call-in marathon I was doing on Coast To Coast AM. That’s the late-night radio show whose listeners tend to be conspiracy theorists, people suffering from sleep disorders, and folks who swear they were once abducted by extra-terrestrials. I was there to talk about animals, but in my book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, I do venture into the question of how we might relate to space aliens, so that’s probably how I got the invitation!

Even at three in the morning, the interview seemed to be going fairly well. But then a guy I will call Leo phoned in. He asked me something about why people love pets but then, just as he was about to hang up, he blurted, “Professor, do you think my dog knows I’m blind?”

The question stopped me cold. I had no idea that he was blind and I didn’t know if his dog did either.

Leo had raised a thorny issue: What do other animals think about us? I fumbled around a little, but then I just admitted to the show’s 4.5 million listeners that I didn’t really have a clue what Leo’s dog might know about his owner’s visual abilities.
Leo’s question nagged at me for the next couple of weeks, and I ended up e-mailing some of the best dog experts I know.

What the experts said

Biologist Marc Bekoff and ASPCA scientific advisor Steve Zawistowski both pointed out that dogs do not have the abstract mental concept of “seeing,”so Leo’s dog would not, at least in a literal sense, know what blindness is.

“This dog clearly knew what it meant for a human to be blind.”

Psychologist Stanley Coren, however, argued that dogs do indeed have a “sense of mind” in that they will turn to their owners for advice by looking at their faces when confronted with a difficult problem. (Another of my experts, ethologist Adam Miklosi, has shown that this is one of the differences between domestic dogs and wolves.)

And animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell summarized the general feeling among my ad hoc panel of dog experts when she wrote, “I doubt that anyone knows the answer to Leo’s question. But what a great research project this would be!”

What about seeing-eye dogs?

I recall mumbling on the radio that night that a trained seeing-eye dog would surely know that their person is blind. But was I correct?

Three of my experts referred me to a set of experiments recently conducted by a French cognitive ethologist named Florence Gaunet. If I was right, guide dogs should be less likely than pet dogs of sighted owners to look toward their guardians’ faces for help when it comes to, say, locating hidden food or soliciting a round of play. To my surprise, however, Gaunet found that that was not the case. Indeed, she concluded, “guide dogs do not understand that their owners cannot see them.”

Adam Miklosi, however, pointed out to me that when he talks to a blind person, he also looks them in the face, even though he knows perfectly well that they cannot see him.

So I was apparently wrong when I blithely claimed on the radio that seeing-eye dogs know their people are blind. Sorry, Leo!

Are pet dogs different?

James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania noted that the results of experiments on guide dogs might not apply to pets. And Steve Zawistowski suggested that whether a pet dog knows that you’re visually impaired might depend on whether you lost your sight gradually or abruptly.

And in her thoughtful response to my enquiry, Barnard College’s Alexandra Horwitz hypothesized that a pet dog could figure out that her person was blind, but would probably not know what that blindness actually entails.

Leave it to the University of Florida’s Clive Wynneto come up with a case in which a dog not only knew her person was blind, but used this knowledge to circumvent our expectation of canine good manners. I’ll let Clive speak for himself:

Hal, I was recently told a story by a dog trainer that is relevant to Leo’s question. She had “inherited” a dog from a blind lady who had passed on. Soon after acquiring the dog, the trainer came downstairs to the kitchen. She was not terribly surprised to see the dog on the kitchen counter helping herself to some food that had been left out. What surprised her was that the dog, on hearing her footsteps on the stairs, did nothing to jump down.

Instead, this dog continued to eat! She was accustomed to the idea that just because a human was in the room, that did not mean that the human could detect her presence on the forbidden kitchen counter. This dog clearly knew what it meant for a human to be blind.

What’s It All Mean?

The bottom line is that even the experts are unsure whether Leo’s dog knows that Leo can’t see.

Though it has not been done, we could easily design an experiment to see whether the pets of sighted and blind individuals treat their owners differently. But Leo also raised the much more difficult question of what our pets think about us. This reminds me of the classic essay What Is It Like to Be a Bat by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He concluded that we can never really know what a bat’s world is like.

But Leo asks us to go even further. He asks, Can we ever really know what a dog knows about what its blind owner knows?

I guess, to paraphrase President Clinton, “It depends on what the meaning of the word know is.”


Hal Herzog is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals (Harper, September 2010).