Canine Con Artistry: You Have Been Warned

Our rescue placed a litter of puppies for adoption years ago. Their mother was Betty, a valiant little beaglette, and we were fortunate to have them with us from the day they were born. I was surprised, then, when our neighbors, who had adopted little Kudzu from us, said that he was having problems with fearfulness, and they were wondering why.

It was galling to hear them ask, even gently, “Was he ever abused by a man?” I knew he had been treated with near-reverence in his foster home, and that these were sturdy, self-reliant puppies when they were placed at 8 weeks. Now, though, he cringed whenever the father in the family came into the room.

What had happened? I offered to watch them interact, but they went to a well-known trainer in the area instead. I was concerned because this guy believed in dominance theory and otherwise was full of a lot of outdated, self-important beliefs about dogs. However, the trainer proved me wrong: he watched Kudzu interact with the family, including the cringing in terror. His advice? “Your dog is faking it. The next time he does it, tell him to cut it out.”

It turned out that Kudzu was going through a phase at around 12 weeks where he was nervous around new people and sounds (it’s very common — some people refer to it as the fear imprint phase), and during that phase, he had been startled by the man, who was the least-known person in the home because he worked outside the house, when he came home one day. He had run, terrified, right into the little girl’s arms. She comforted him and petted him, gave him a belly rub and lots of treats. The dog, who was a beagle mix, BTW, didn’t need to be told twice. He started doing it every time the man came home, and kicked it up a notch by cringing dramatically whenever the man walked by him. He was conning them, or, as my esteemed colleague Laura would tell you, he had experienced a positive outcome for his behavior and repeated it regularly to get the reward it produced. Sure enough, a few sharp words were all it took for little Kudzu to give up on this maneuver.

Playing pathetic isn’t the only con dogs pull, though. Other examples include:

  • DistrAction — This is a fantastic short con pulled when there are multiple dogs in the household. Specifically, one of the dogs provokes a reaction from the other dog(s), and while their peers and humans are distracted, they steal food they want, or take that prime bed that another dog was occupying. Sometimes dogs will pull this as solo artists if there are children in the home, but for the most part, they need their unwitting pack members to pull this one off.
  • Lickety Quick — At first I didn’t realize that this was a con when I saw dogs doing it. Specifically, it occurs when family dogs get as near as possible to a well-guarded plate of food that is currently being eaten or held by a human. It appears to be standard operation, except that the dogs in question must realize that there is no way that they are going to steal the food in question, and every chance they will be reprimanded. But they still make one effort to get the food, a desperate head movement that, at best, results in them getting their tongue on the plate for a millisecond. I always wondered why these seasoned food thieves know to bide their time for a better opportunity? It seemed so bush league. But then I realized the truth: they knew their marks and they knew that if they licked even a tiny bit of food, their humans would discard all or part of that plate. Lickety Quick is a way to speed the process.
Picture of a yellow labrador attempting to get food off a plate.
Our hidden cameras captured this dog in the process of doing The Lick. (Photo credit: Amy T.)
  • Sudden Bonelessness — I have seen this only a few times in action, but it is a brilliant little trick. Our rescue was placing a cute little mutt in a foster home. Her foster was a first-timer, and very earnest. She would give us detailed reports about what little Petunia was doing, including her concern that Petunia had a wasting disorder or muscular deficiency. It turned out that every day they would go for a long walk, and whenever Petunia would hit the two-mile mark, she would collapse and be unable to walk. Her foster would need to carry her home. I didn’t want to embarrass the woman, so I just nodded earnestly and said we’d look into it. I was still in sincere mode when the foster said that after the walk she would give Petunia Häagen-Dazs and that seemed to revive her. Her husband was less able to keep a straight face when his wife noted, “She only seems to like Häagen-Dazs vanilla. She won’t eat anything else.” Petunia was playing her foster like a violin.
Dog being carried
This dog wasn’t subtle about his use of Sudden Bonelessness. (Photo credit:

There are so many other ways that dogs take advantage of unsuspecting humans. These are only a few. Spread the word, and help others to avoid becoming the victims of these shameless gladhanders.

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Moretta is a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Her Twitter is

10 thoughts on “Canine Con Artistry: You Have Been Warned”

  1. I can’t believe you left out the “No, I have NOT been fed yet by the other human who’s not around to ask if they’ve fed me” con.

    Schubert is our sweet little dimbulb, which is probably why he’s so good at conning. He used to stare and bark at the door in order to get Gershwin to move out of the lap that Schubert wanted. On walks, when he isn’t getting enough attention from strangers, he will “die” on the sidewalk so his mark will take pity on him and give him luvvies.

      1. Because FOOD? Or they’ve already forgotten that they’ve just ate? Regardless, this is why we have a very clear division of dog-feeding labor in our house. Unless I am explicitly told otherwise, I assume husband has fed them breakfast, and whoever did not cook dinner for the humans feeds the dogs at night.

  2. The trainer at day care sent me a picture of Daisy rolled over on her back recently with the caption, “She’s playing submissive! So cute!” I responded, “Nope. She doesn’t want to do whatever it is you want her to and she’s trying to con you.” Sure enough, talking to the trainer, Daisy didn’t want to play with the other dogs anymore and was conning attention out of the staff so that she could stay in the office and get private attention.

  3. This is Biscotti. First he refused to walk through the door because he didn’t want his walk to be over, so we picked baby Biscotti up and carried him. It turns out that he loooooves being carried around like a baby and started refusing to do all kinds of things in order to be carried. He’s nearly 70 lbs as an adult so now he only does that shit with my husband who will cheerfully carry him around life a baby.
    He developed a genuine thunder/storm/wind phobia but after my husband decided he was allowed in our room to hide in our bed during storms he started eagerly shoving his way through the door any time it sprinkled. And naturally he doesn’t need to leave once the storm is over. A single thunderclap is good for like 12 hours of bed time.
    Since we’re both horrible pushovers it continues to work.

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