Hannah Learns “Theory of Mind” From Dog

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Theory of Mind

People with autism usually don’t understand others have their own thoughts and feelings which may differ from their own. Science calls this Theory of Mind.

Hannah was no exception.  She didn’t realize that what she knows, someone else may not know. Likewise, someone else may know something that she doesn’t know. For example, Hannah wandered off from school one day when she was in second grade. After a frantic search, they found her in the park right next to the school. When they spoke to her about wandering off like that, she said with a confused look on her face, “I was right here.” Because she knew it, she assumed everyone else did too.


When Hannah was twelve, she asked if she could keep a puppy about two-months-old that had been abandoned.  I knew from my experiences in my own childhood, that having the unconditional love and attention of a dog would have a nurturing effect on her, so I agreed.

I began teaching Hannah that dogs think differently than people. They have a “pack” mentality.

Zoey, being part border collie, would herd her pack by nipping at our ankles or when other kids were outside playing, she would jump up and nip their butts. Although we all thought it was hilarious, we couldn’t let her do that.

I enlisted HannaZoey Teaches Hannah Theory of Mindh’s help in teaching Zoey that she could not be the head of the pack.

We started by making sure to feed Zoey after we ate. I explained to Hannah this was because in a pack, the leader eats first. By feeding Zoey after us, that would communicate her appropriate place in the “pack.”

When we would go up or down stairs, we went first, and then Zoey could follow.

When the school year started, I told Hannah how much Zoey cried and whined in the morning when Hannah left. She said, “Why was she crying? She knows I was at school.”

I explained, “Zoey had no idea where you were. All she knew is you were here and then you weren’t.”

Hannah really thought this one over and said, “Well, she knows I can’t be with her all the time.”

“Zoey doesn’t know that either,” I said. “When your friends get busy and don’t spend as much time with you as they used to, you get upset and don’t understand why. That is how Zoey feels when you’re gone to school.”

She’s Got It!

Weeks and months went by with similar conversations and lessons, but they became fewer and farther between. Gradually, Hannah started telling us what Zoey was thinking or feeling.

The first time we took Zoey to an obedience lesson, Hannah was concerned for her. “She doesn’t know where we’re going. She’s gonna think we’re taking her to the vet.”

Another time, we went out of town for a few days and boarded Zoey at a kennel. As we drove away, Hannah said through tears, “Mom, I wish she could go with us. She’s really gonna be afraid, especially at night when she can’t be with me. She’s gonna think we’re never coming back!”

I comforted Hannah, of course. But at the same time, I thought I would burst with excitement. “She’s got it! She’s learned Theory of Mind!”


  1. // Reply

    Oh goodness, this post is filled with knowledge, “things to consider”, and deep feelings of confusion, pain and victory. Marlene, you have a way of drawing me into the story and feeling what each “character” feels. This is such a heartwarming and encouraging post!

  2. // Reply

    Debbie’s response is exactly mine. She worded it better than I could have. This is a real education for me. The theory is applicable to other aspects of life as well. I was just thinking earlier of how when we were first married, I arrived home from work an hour after the new groom. He was comfortably relaxed in front of the TV, no supper preparation happening. Knowing full well that he knew, thought and felt as I did, I was incensed. (Of course we had never discussed this.) But I marched into the living room and unloaded on the poor unsuspecting object of my fury.

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