What Thoughts Do Dogs Have?

Dogs Have Complex Minds

Dogs have large, complex brains capable of thought and emotion. Compared to their wolf ancestors, domestic dogs have developed bigger brains relative to their body size, with the brain overgrowth mainly in the frontal lobe which controls higher-order thinking and decision-making (1). MRI scans show that a dog’s brain structure is very similar to humans, with regions associated with complex cognition (2).

Dogs actively build mental maps and models of their world, allowing them to navigate their surroundings. Studies show dogs have an excellent long-term memory and can remember specific events, places, and people after months or even years (3). Dogs are also intelligent problem solvers, as demonstrated through their ability to interpret human communicative gestures like pointing (4).

With their highly developed brains, dogs are capable of complex thought processes and emotions beyond basic instinctual behaviors. Their advanced cognitive abilities likely arose during the domestication process as dogs that could understand and communicate with humans were selectively bred over generations.


(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5424068/

(2) https://www.dognition.com/

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_intelligence

Dogs Feel Basic Emotions

Dogs have the capacity to experience a range of basic emotions including happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, and stress. Studies using functional MRI scans have shown that dogs have specific regions of their brain that are associated with emotional processing, similar to humans. For example, an fMRI study by Berns et al. (2020) demonstrated activation in the dog brain’s caudo-putamen and amygdala in response to human emotional facial expressions, suggesting dogs perceive basic human emotions.

Researchers believe the caudate nucleus may be tied to positive anticipation and reward in dogs, similar to its role in humans. Increased caudate activation has been observed in dogs when they smell familiar humans, suggesting an association with positive emotion. The amygdala, meanwhile, shows increased activation when dogs process negative stimuli like angry human faces.

Overall, dogs appear capable of experiencing core emotions much like people do. Their behavioral responses to different situations also suggest happiness, sadness, anxiety and other mood states. More research is still needed to fully map the canine emotional system, but it’s clear dogs have feeling lives comparable in some ways to our own (Berns et al., 2020).

Dogs May Experience Complex Emotions

While dogs primarily experience basic emotions like happiness, fear, and anxiety, some research suggests they may also feel more complex emotions like jealousy, pride, and shame. A study published in PNAS found that dogs exhibited jealous behaviors when their owners displayed affection toward a stuffed dog, indicating they may experience jealousy (source). Another study showed dogs demonstrated proud body language like a high head carriage and wagging tail after being praised for completing a task (source). There is also anecdotal evidence of dogs acting guilty or ashamed when scolded for doing something perceived as wrong.

However, more scientific research is needed to fully understand the extent to which dogs experience complex emotions. While they may display jealous or proud behaviors, it is unclear if dogs actually feel the subjective components of those emotions. Their emotional capabilities likely fall somewhere between basic emotions and the more abstract feelings of humans. Further studies mapping dog brain activity and behavior could provide more definitive answers on the nuances of canine emotional states.

Dogs Communicate With Humans

Dogs have evolved to become skilled communicators with humans. Studies show that even puppies who have had limited human contact are adept at understanding human gestures and communication signals. According to research from the University of Arizona, puppies as young as 8 weeks old can interpret pointing gestures, making them ready to communicate with people right from birth.

Dogs primarily use body language, vocalizations, and facial expressions to signal their own desires, moods, and intentions to their human companions. Tail wagging, growling, whimpering, barking, staring, and licking are some of the ways dogs communicate their needs. Research has also found dogs can distinguish human emotional states from vocal cues alone.

In return, dogs are excellent at reading human communication signals like pointing, gaze, and tone of voice. Their ability to understand human gestures, combined with their capacity to express themselves to people, enables complex communication and strong social bonds between dogs and humans.

Dogs Have Memories

Research has shown that dogs have episodic memory, allowing them to recall specific events from the past just like humans. A 2016 study published in Current Biology found that dogs can remember an event if it was associated with a specific location, person, or object [1]. For example, in the study dogs were easily able to identify which of two toys they had played with when asked by their owner, suggesting they were relying on memories of that specific play session.

In addition to episodic memory, dogs have excellent long-term memory capabilities. Dogs can remember people, places, and other dogs for many years. There are countless anecdotal stories of dogs recognizing previous owners or other dogs they haven’t seen in years. Scientific studies have shown dogs can remember hand signals and words they were taught up to two years later [2]. Their impressive long-term memory allows dogs to form strong social bonds and relationships.

Dogs Anticipate the Future

Studies have shown that dogs demonstrate the ability to anticipate future events, especially related to things like mealtimes. For example, dogs will begin to wait by their food bowls in anticipation of being fed at their normal mealtime. This shows that dogs can have a sense of time and expectation of an event happening in the future based on previous patterns (Wikipedia).

Additionally, research has found that dogs seem capable of planning routes and solutions to problems. In tests where dogs had to navigate obstacles to get to a treat, they showed the ability to plan a route by first observing the obstacles from a distance. This suggests dogs can mentally prepare for a problem and think through solutions before acting (Current Trends in Canine Problem-Solving).

Dogs Have Self-Awareness

Recent studies indicate that dogs have a sense of self-awareness, something that was previously thought to only exist in humans and some other higher primates. In one study from 2021, researchers from the dog cognition lab at Barnard College marked dogs’ bodies with scent and observed their reactions when presented with a mirror (1). The dogs spent more time investigating the mark on their body, indicating they recognized the reflection as themselves. This type of “mirror self-recognition test” has historically been difficult for dogs, but the use of scent rather than visual marks provided an advantage.

Other studies have also explored dogs’ self-perception and individuality. Research shows dogs view their own urine scent as information about themselves and react less to it than the urine scent of other dogs (2). Dogs also respond differently to recordings of their own barks versus other dogs’ barks. These types of studies demonstrate dogs have some capacity for abstract thinking about their identity.

While the depth of dogs’ self-awareness may not match humans, the latest research indicates dogs do have a concept of self and the ability to recognize themselves. This level of self-awareness points to the complexity of canine consciousness.

(1) https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/a-new-way-to-look-at-dog-self-awareness/

(2) https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/do-dogs-have-self-awareness/

Dogs Dream

Like humans, dogs experience REM sleep where vivid dreaming occurs. During REM sleep, dogs’ brains show similar activity patterns to when they are awake. Research shows that dogs dream about common daily activities like playing with their owners or guarding their territory [1]. One study at Harvard University monitored sleeping dogs and found their physical movements corresponded to what they were dreaming about, such as moving their legs like they were running after something [2].

Interestingly, dogs not only dream about doggy things but also about their human companions. Brain scans indicate dogs may dream of their owners’ faces and associate these images with positive emotions. The strength of the dog’s bond with their owner influences how often they appear in their dreams [3]. So when your dog is sleeping, they are likely dreaming of their happy life with you!

Dogs Feel Empathy

One way dogs demonstrate empathy is through contagious yawning. When dogs see a human or another dog yawn, they will often yawn in response. A study by the National Geographic found that dogs yawn more in response to their owners’ yawns compared to strangers’ yawns, suggesting they can pick up on human emotions.

However, some research indicates contagious yawning may simply be a reflex and not necessarily a sign of empathy. A study published in the Royal Society Publishing found no link between contagious yawning and empathy levels in dogs.

Another way dogs demonstrate empathy is by comforting humans and other dogs that are distressed. Dogs will often nuzzle, lick, or cuddle up to someone who is crying or upset. Some dogs are even trained as therapy dogs to provide comfort and affection to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas.

More Research Needed

While significant advances have been made, dog cognition is still not fully mapped or understood. There are likely complexities and capabilities yet to be uncovered through future research. Improved technology for communicating with dogs could reveal deeper insights into how they think and perceive the world.

Some key areas for future dog cognition research include:

  • How dogs form attachments and relationships
  • The extent of dogs’ language comprehension
  • How dogs perceive time
  • Dogs’ ability to problem solve
  • The development of dog personality and individuality

As technology like brain imaging and AI translation improve, researchers may gain clearer windows into the minds of dogs. Increased understanding of dog cognition will allow humans to better communicate with and care for their canine companions.

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