Do Dogs Understand Us More Than We Think?


Many people think of their dogs as loving, loyal companions but do not fully appreciate the depth of canine intelligence and their ability to communicate with humans. New research in dog cognition suggests that dogs have a greater understanding of human language and emotions than previously realized. Dogs not only comprehend many words and signals, but some can even learn to imitate or manipulate vocal sounds. This reveals their understanding goes deeper than simple conditioning. Dogs seem to possess complex emotions, memories, reasoning skills, and self-awareness. This suggests their minds may operate more similarly to humans than we have given them credit for.

As research into canine cognition expands, we are gaining a greater appreciation for the capacities of the dog mind. Studies show they understand meaning through verbal context, not just memorized cues. Dogs read human body language and emotion, exhibit complex feelings like jealousy and empathy, and have episodic memory allowing them to reflect on the past. There is evidence of abstract thinking, creative problem solving, and a sense of self in dogs. Overall, the latest science demonstrates that dogs comprehend humans at a surprisingly profound level.

(The Thinking Dog, Dog Breed Perceived Aggressiveness versus Expressed)

Dogs Understand Words

Studies have shown that dogs are capable of learning the meanings of hundreds of words through word-object association. A 2012 study demonstrated that a border collie named Chaser had learned the names of over 1,000 objects. The researchers would show Chaser a toy, say the name of the toy, and then hide the toy, asking Chaser to find the named object. Through this repeated process, Chaser learned the objects’ names.

Another study in 2016 aimed to determine the number of words an average dog could understand. The researchers surveyed dog owners about the number of words their dog responded to consistently. They found that the average dog understood around 165 words, with some high performing dogs understanding over 250 words. The results showed dogs have the capacity to learn a large vocabulary through associating words with meanings.

Dogs Read Body Language

Dogs have an impressive ability to understand human body language and gestures. According to research by Hasegawa et al. (2014), dogs are able to recognize various human bodily gestures and facial expressions. For example, dogs can differentiate between happy and angry faces, and respond accordingly to nonverbal cues such as pointing or gazing in a certain direction.

One key skill is that dogs are very good at following pointing gestures. In studies, dogs have consistently shown the ability to follow a pointed finger to locate food or toys. This may indicate that dogs have evolved an inter-species ability to understand human nonverbal communication. Even puppies as young as 6 weeks old demonstrate some capacity to follow pointing. Overall, dogs seem highly attuned to human body language thanks to their long history of domestication.

Dogs Have Object Permanence

Object permanence refers to an understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are hidden from view. Research has shown that dogs possess this cognitive ability to some degree. For example, a 2016 study published in Psychological Science found that dogs were able to find treats that had been visibly hidden under cups even after delays of up to 4 minutes, indicating they maintained a mental representation of the treats even when out of view (source).

Another key indicator dogs understand object permanence is their ability to complete invisible displacement tasks. In these tasks, dogs watch an object being hidden in one of multiple locations, such as under cups. The researcher then visibly shows the object is no longer under the original hiding spot before asking the dog to find it. Dogs as young as 9 weeks old can complete this task, suggesting they understand the object still exists somewhere even though they did not see it moved (source).

The capacity to hold mental representations of hidden objects points to an understanding of abstraction in dogs. While not as advanced as humans, this shows dogs have some sense that elements of their physical world continue to exist even when no longer directly observed through vision or other senses.

Dogs Feel Complex Emotions

Research shows that dogs have a broad emotional range, experiencing complex emotions like jealousy, empathy, and grief. Studies have demonstrated that dogs exhibit clear signs of jealousy when their owners interact with other dogs or humans. For example, one study found that many dogs tried to intervene by pushing or touching their owner when they were petting and talking sweetly to a stuffed dog (source:

There is also evidence that dogs empathize with human emotions. Scientists have discovered that dogs can recognize human facial expressions, and their heart rates tend to increase when seeing people with angry or happy faces versus neutral expressions (source: Additionally, studies show dogs often approach people who are crying as if to provide comfort.

When it comes to grief, dogs clearly go through emotional responses when separated from close companions. Research has found that after a companion pet or human dies, dogs can experience lethargy, changes in eating patterns, increased vocalizations, and searching behaviors – all signs associated with grief in humans as well (source:

Dogs Read Human Emotions

Studies have shown that dogs have the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to human emotional states. In one study published in Biology Letters (Albuquerque et al., 2016), dogs were presented with images and audio recordings of humans and dogs expressing different emotions. The dogs spent more time looking at the screen when the human faces matched the emotion being played in the audio recording. This demonstrates that dogs can cross-modally recognize human emotions.

Dogs also seem able to discriminate between different human emotions, not just positive versus negative states. Research has found that dogs respond differently to crying versus humming sounds (Mota-Rojas et al., 2021). When hearing crying, dogs exhibit submissive body postures and approach behaviors to comfort humans. However, they show alert reactions to humming, demonstrating their ability to distinguish human emotional states through vocal cues.

Overall, studies reveal dogs have complex emotional recognition abilities. By reading human emotions, dogs likely form closer social bonds with people and respond appropriately to situational contexts. Their cross-modal understanding of human emotions suggests advanced cognitive capacities compared to other species.

Dogs Have Episodic Memory

Recent research suggests that dogs have episodic memory, meaning they can remember specific events and episodes from their past (Fugazza, 2020; Science News, 2016; The Guardian, 2016). In one study, dogs were able to remember where they found a hidden toy up to 10 minutes later, indicating they formed episodic memories of hiding and finding the toy. This is an important cognitive ability previously only seen in humans and some primate species.

The presence of episodic memory suggests dogs have some capacity for self-awareness and autonoetic consciousness – the ability to mentally place themselves in the past while remembering an event. Humans rely on episodic memory to recall personal experiences, visualize the future, and shape our sense of self. If dogs also possess this ability, it implies a level of cognitive sophistication comparable in some ways to a young child.

Understanding that dogs have episodic memories can help owners appreciate their pet’s inner world and capacity for emotions like nostalgia. It also has important animal welfare implications, as it suggests dogs may benefit from enriched environments that create varied life experiences and memories. Overall, this research helps underscore that despite differences in communication, dogs share with humans the profound gift of living in the fourth dimension of time.

Dogs Reason and Problem Solve

Dogs have the ability to use logic and reasoning to solve problems and puzzles. According to research from Current Trends in Canine Problem-Solving and Cognition, dogs utilize causal reasoning to make inferences and solve problems. For example, dogs can learn to pull a lever or push a button to dispense treats. They understand that their action causes the treat to appear.

Dogs also understand object permanence – knowing that an object still exists even if they can’t directly see or interact with it at the moment. This shows logical thinking skills. In experiments where food was hidden under cups and rotated around, dogs tracked which cup the food was under, demonstrating their ability to reason where the food must be after the rotation.

When given puzzles and tasks to solve, dominant dogs generally perform better, showing they have good problem-solving abilities. Smart dogs can learn how to unlatch gates, open doors, and even operate some mechanical devices all through reasoning, logic and experimentation.

Dogs Have Self-Awareness

Research suggests that dogs do have a sense of self-awareness, despite not being able to recognize themselves in mirrors like humans and some other animals can.

In a 2021 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found evidence that dogs are aware of how they physically take up space. The dogs in the study avoided bumping into barriers when approaching them, suggesting they knew the space their own bodies occupy. This demonstrates a basic form of self-awareness not based on visual recognition (Source).

Other research indicates dogs likely have metacognition, meaning they can monitor their own mental states. In experiments, dogs opted to “ask for help” when presented with difficult problem-solving tasks, suggesting an awareness of what they do and do not know. Their ability to recognize their own knowledge states indicates a form of self-awareness (Source).

So while dogs may not pass the mirror test for self-recognition like humans, great apes, and some other species, they do seem capable of more basic forms of self-awareness through their sense of physical space and metacognitive abilities.


Dogs are indeed highly intelligent creatures in ways we are only beginning to fully understand. This article explored various aspects of canine cognition that demonstrate their advanced mental capabilities.

Dogs comprehend a large vocabulary of human words and phrases. They also read human body language and emotions very well. Dogs have demonstrated self-awareness, episodic memory, reasoning skills, problem solving abilities, and complex emotions like jealousy.

The implications of dogs’ cognitive abilities are that we should not underestimate their intelligence. Dogs are sensitive, emotional beings who understand more of the human world than we may realize. We must continue researching dog psychology and behavior to gain further insight into their minds. A deeper understanding of our canine companions will allow us to improve how we communicate with and care for them.

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