When They Think, What Do Dogs Think About?

As human beings, we have a continual stream of ideas, both large and tiny. It’s a question that keeps coming up, at least among dog owners: What do dogs think about all day, every day?

There is still widespread uncertainty even after centuries. But more and more possibilities have been found as the study continues. There are currently cognitive science laboratories and research institutes at an increasing number of institutions. Their efforts, together with those of other psychologists, neuroscientists, and biologists, have been providing us with new insights into the canine mind.

Could Dogs Really Think?

Dr. Emily Bray, a postdoctoral fellow at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, thinks that dogs “definitely” have ideas. Not being able to openly interrogate someone is “part of the joy,” she says.

Dogs don’t think quite as we do, and their minds are different from ours in many ways. The size is the most fundamental aspect. The brain of an average-sized dog is approximately the size of a lemon, whereas that of an average-sized person is around the size of two closed fists. Compared to humans, dogs have smaller brains even when their overall size is taken into consideration.

The frontal lobes are a differentiating factor as well. The frontal lobes, the biggest region of the brain, are essential for a wide variety of mental processes, including planning ahead, retaining information, communicating effectively, and making sound decisions. It turns out that the frontal lobes occupy far more space in the human brain than they do in the canine brain, around a third compared to 10%. Your dog’s lack of self-control around the grilled hot dogs you left out on the counter could be attributable to this. Remembering this difference in the frontal lobes might help you better comprehend your dog’s thoughts and actions.

However, there are shared mental processes between canines and humans; some of these may have developed in dogs due to their close bond with (and reliance on) humans. The pointing of blame is one example.

Before they turn one, human newborns show signs of understanding the pointing gesture. In his new book, Survival of the Friendliest, Dr. Brian Hare, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and creator of the phrase “you observed your mum point to a bird or you gesture to your favorite toy,” writes about how children learn basic communication skills by seeing their parents. It seems that canines are susceptible as well. Dogs understand that when their owners point, it’s to assist them in some manner, like locating a ball.

“Intriguingly, dogs are considerably better at this activity than primates, our closest living relatives,” says Bray of tests in which canines follow a human’s point in order to locate food. That these sociable traits were favored throughout domestication is a theory put up to explain why they emerged as advantageous.

Fast-mapping, or figuring out what a word means by inference, is a skill previously reported solely in humans, but Bray believes canines have the ability to perform it as well.

And much like us, dogs’ brains change with age, which has consequences for executive functions like memory and inhibition as they become older.

Can We Understand dog Thought Processes?

Dog Cognition Center at Boston College Ph.D. student Molly Byrne speculates that “thinking for dogs would definitely not look like thinking for humans.” Dogs, unlike humans, “do not have access to all of the structures that help them comprehend the ideas and thoughts they experience, or in other instances merely employ alternative structures.”

Contemplative musings, to provide one example. Byrne claims that some dogs know as much as 2,000 words in human language and can even utilize simple grammatical structures, but this doesn’t represent how dogs communicate with one another and is thus unlikely to be how canines process their own ideas.

What do dogs really think? Do dogs understand barks the way we do? If you believe Byrne, this is a widely held belief among pet owners, despite how implausible it is. She claims that dogs’ barks are more about pitch and ferocity than exchanging words.

A dog’s ideas are probably grounded on a combination of senses, with scent being the primary one, rather than a word-based language like ours. Comparatively, the canine brain’s area dedicated to olfactory processing is much greater than that of the human brain.

To paraphrase what Byrne has to say regarding dogs’ sensory processing: “Given what we know about the way that dogs receive sensory information,” “I would anticipate their thoughts to incorporate ideas created from their main sensory modes—perhaps thinking in scents, sights, or even certain forms of noises.”

When They Think, What Do Dogs Think About?

In spite of the fact that they spend most of their time sleeping, dogs presumably have some of the same daytime thoughts as a 2- or 3-year-old human: “Solving difficulties, what’s for supper, what’s that over there?” Says Hare.

However, “as to what percentage of time dogs spend thinking about certain issues, no one knows,” he continues. “It’s probably reasonable to infer that both dogs and young children are more present-oriented than adults, rather than dwelling on the past or the future.”

According to Bray, canines often consider such mundane matters as eating, playing, and socializing with their human caretakers. Their meditative duration “depends on the dog and their own tastes and experiences,” she says, much as it does for people.

When left alone, what kind of thoughts do dogs have?

If left alone, some dogs will just curl up and go to sleep. Some people experience tension or harmful behavior because of separation anxiety or boredom.

It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going through their heads. Byrne writes, “Some dogs suffer sorrow when they are left alone, but it is impossible to determine whether they are thinking about the person they wish they were with, or simply experiencing their own loneliness.” Further study is required to determine the motivation behind these actions.

Understanding Your Dog’s Thoughts

If you try hard enough, you may be able to get a fairly good idea of what’s going on in that furry brain. Using just your eyes, ears, and brain, all you need to do is observe carefully, use cues from the context, and think creatively.

Bray recommends beginning with a study of dog body language. If you can read your dog’s body language and facial expressions, you’ll have a far better sense of what he’s thinking and feeling when he does things like yawn when he’s not sleepy (a sign of dread or anxiety) or bare his teeth (a sign of hostility).

Byrne advises that, in addition to studying your dog’s body language, you should also focus on what your dog is looking at to learn more about its thoughts. Byrne suggests that if your dog sniffs around a telephone pole before marking it with urine, he is doing so because he is thinking about the other dogs whose odors he is picking up.

Simply watching your dog in silence may frequently reveal his thoughts and feelings. Opening the refrigerator door in the kitchen is often a sign that one is either contemplating eating or experiencing hunger. Consider your dog’s food bowl and storage cupboard in this light.

Yet, there is more to it than just these superficial links. According to Byrne, dogs may have abstract thoughts about things they aren’t directly experiencing, such as when your dog sniffs you when you get home from work to learn as much as he can about your day.

Byrne believes it’s fair to assume that your dog is considering you and your connection to them when it comes up and nudges your hand to be patted. There’s also the possibility that they’re attempting to touch an itch behind their ear.