The Cunning Game: How Sneaky Is Your Dog?

Imagine you are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in your kitchen. Your dog is keeping you company. The phone rings and before you take the call, you tell your dog to not touch your food. Would you trust that your dog would leave your sandwich alone?

Dog Eats Peanut Butter image

“Oh hello there, er this, this isn’t the once half full jar of peanut butter that was just on the table.” (reddit/Goldenhill5402)

Some dogs would be snacking on that sandwich immediately. “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” these dogs might think. Others, maybe even your dog, would patiently wait for your permission to eat the sandwich. Even others still might wait for a bit, then eventually tear into that sandwich with a tail-wagging glee. What does your dog’s response say about him or her? That’s what the Dognition Cunning games will share with you.

The Dognition Cunning games are based on published research showing that some dogs are aware they are being watched, while other dogs are not. Furthermore, among the dogs who pick up that they are being watched, some of them choose to use this information to their advantage while others choose not to do so. By playing the Dognition Cunning games, you can assess how wily or trustworthy your dog is when given the opportunity to sneak a treat (like a peanut butter sandwich!) But what do our scientists mean when they label a dog more trustworthy or more wily?

Trustworthy or Wily?

The definition of “trustworthy” within gameplay often confuses people and is the key to understanding the Cunning games and results. Many people would predict that dogs who score as trustworthy would be those who never take a treat in any scenario. At Dognition, we use the term “trustworthy” slightly differently. Dogs that score as trustworthy have established that they have the ability to know whether their human is watching them or not. They establish this by having markedly different behaviors when they are not being watched versus when they are. In the case of a trustworthy dog, when they are not being watched they are less likely to go for the food right away than when they are being watched. They feel comfortable sharing (ahem, demolishing) the sandwich in the above example when your eyes are on them, but when your eyes are looking elsewhere and you’re trusting them, they are less likely to snarf the sandwich right away.

The opposite is true for wily dogs. These dogs are waiting until they won’t be caught and then swooping in for the snatch. They are purposefully taking advantage of the human not being able to see them. Do you have a wily dog? If so, be proud that your dog is able to read your attentional state to know when you are watching and when you are not. This is an amazing feat of genius that not many animals possess! Plus you have to admit: how extraordinary to have a friend that pays such close attention to you! And when it comes to delicious peanut butter, your dog wanted me to let you know that sharing is caring. 😉


Some dogs end up in the middle of the Cunning scale. These dogs behaved the same way regardless of their human’s ability to see them. Some dogs went for the treat right away, others waited it out, but either way, they did the same thing every time. In regards to the dogs that wait it out, many people write in and ask us, “Why isn’t my dog scored as trustworthy? My dog never took any of the treats.” These dogs’ behavior didn’t change when they were being watched versus ignored–they always waited. This shows us that in this context they are not using their human’s attention, they are using some other cognitive strategy. So in the big picture, these dogs may be incredibly trustworthy in the sense that they are incredibly consistent. But it’s the dogs who use their human’s attention as a strategy that end up on the trustworthy side of the Cunning spectrum.


In our beginning example, whether your dog immediately went for your sandwich or waited for your permission to eat the sandwich, all strategies are intelligent choices. In the Dognition Assessment, there are no wrong answers; this isn’t an IQ test. So however your dog scores on the Cunning spectrum, the choices he or she made during the games show your dog’s thinking and problem solving strategy. Getting to know your dog on a cognitive level in Cunning will increase your understanding on if your dog pays attention to whether you are watching him or her…and then what your dog does with this information.

Share with us! Where did your dog fall on the Cunning scale? Did your dog’s results surprise you or confirm what you knew?