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The Ethicist
March 1, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Is It OK to Lie to a Dog?

Sometimes my dog, Ornette, escapes our fenced yard and won't return on command. We open the car door and tell her excitedly that we'll take her for a walk—her favorite activity—to entice her into the car. Then we put on her leash and take her home, no walk. Although dogs don't really understand language in the way humans do, is it still wrong to mislead her?
DAVID SCHADE, Victoria, British Columbia

I SHARE your skepticism that your dog understands the precise meaning of "walk." (Some animal lovers will dispute this—but please, no e-mails about how much your dog enjoys Great Expectations.) For all you know, when you excitedly say, "Walk!" your dog hears, "I like you!" or, "Let's drive home and watch Benji."

Clearly, it's possible to deceive a dog and in your case, that's a good thing.

What's the alternative? You can't offer even the most linguistically gifted dog a convincing argument for returning to the yard. You could bribe her, if you carried meat in your glove compartment. But bribery also raises moral questions.

Happily, what you're doing is harmless: It's not the same as telling your kids they're going to Disneyland and then taking them to the dentist.

If you're still worried about lying to your dog, then give her a firm command—into the car!—and make sure she's trained to obey it, for her benefit and yours.

But if you do become convinced of Ornette's advanced verbal ability, give her bus fare and tell her to return home whenever she likes. And be sure to tell her where she should get off, so she doesn't get lost.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)