A Dog's Lie

Randy Cohen
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Posted: Sep 25, 2008 12:01 AM
A Dog's Lie

Sometimes my normally obedient dog, Ornette, escapes our fenced yard and will not return on command. We open the car door and tell her excitedly that we will take her for a walk, her favorite activity, to entice her into the car. Then we put on the leash and take her home, no walk. Although dogs don't really understand language in the way that humans do, I'm worried about the ethical propriety of our misleading ploy. Should I be? -- David Schade, Victoria, British Columbia

I share your skepticism that your dog understands the precise meaning of "walk" (an assertion some animal lovers will repudiate -- but, please, no e-mail about how much your dog enjoys "Pride and Prejudice"). For all you know, when you excitedly say, "Walk," your dog hears, "I like you!" or "Let's drive home and watch 'Lassie.'" Yet clearly it is possible to deceive a dog (by pretending to throw the ball, for example) and in your case, fortunately so.

What's the alternative? You can't offer even the most linguistically gifted dog a cogent argument for returning to the yard. You could bribe her, if you carried meat in your glove compartment, but bribery, too, raises moral questions. Happily, what you are doing is innocuous; it is not akin to telling your kids they're going to Disneyland and then taking them to the dentist. (Or telling me I'm going to my dentist, a skilled and eloquent fellow, but instead subjecting me to the nausea and fear of an amusement park.) But if you remain determined not to fool her, then give her a firm command -- into the car! -- and make sure she's trained to obey it, for the benefit of you both.

Alternatively, if you become convinced of your dog's verbal ability, give her bus fare and tell her to return home when she likes. Be sure to mention the stop where she gets off so she doesn't get lost.

Maybe write it down for her.


My wife parked in a public garage and lost her parking ticket. Had we gone to the cashier without it, we would have paid $24 instead of $12 for the four hours we parked. I found another ticket on the garage floor. There was no way to identify its owner. By using it we would pay $4 for an hour's parking. I suppose the ethical thing would have been to pay the $24. We didn't. Are we bad people? -- John Travaglini, Seattle

You're no worse than any other petty cheat. You used a ticket-fiddle to avoid paying what the rules said you owed. I understand your reluctance to pay $24 when, had you been billed for your actual parking, you'd have owed only $12, but I'm an understanding person. (I can even understand why someone might finagle his taxes, what with money being so useful for buying things -- attractive things, tasty things. I have a gift for empathy.) One way to avoid what you see as the excessive charge and still walk in the sun: Work your little found-ticket scheme and hand $4 to the cashier, then, when you get home, mail the garage the additional $8 you owe.

While your conduct was unfortunate, you could argue that the garage unethically imposes too hefty a penalty on people who innocently lose a ticket, no doubt to deter scammers who would claim they parked for only 10 seconds but lost the ticket. The garage should devise a system that does not treat the many honest bunglers like the few parking charlatans (perhaps by electronically recording license plates when cars enter and exit). There's no reason to believe that the garage is deliberately being unethical. But persistent incompetence can have the effect of willful iniquity.