Brilliant: The Science of Smart

What Your Dog Is Thinking

Dogs can count, use touchscreen computers and understand hundreds of words. Soon we might find out what they really think of us

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Over the past half-century, the tools of neuroscience have revealed much about the workings of the human brain. Now researchers are pushing forward in a new frontier: exploring what goes on in the mind of man’s best friend. The study of canine cognition has taken off in recent years, energized by new findings about how dogs learn words, numbers and abstract concepts — and how they manage us, their ostensible masters.

In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers used a procedure known as “preferential viewing” to show that dogs can understand simple calculations. Eleven pet dogs were shown treats that were then placed behind a screen. When one treat, and then another, was placed behind the screen and the screen was removed, dogs gazed briefly at the two treats. When two treats were deposited behind the screen but only one remained when the screen was taken away, the dogs stared at the lone treat for longer, indicating that they were aware the math didn’t add up.

(MORE: The Secret Inside Your Dog’s Mind)

Dogs understand language too, and the new research shows they can learn more words than just down and sit. The average dog can learn 165 words, notes psychologist Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia, and some superdogs can have a vocabulary of 250 words. In a study that appeared in the journal Science, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany reported on a border collie named Rico who could learn a name given to an unfamiliar object like a stuffed bunny through a process of elimination and could remember the name of that object four weeks later. (Border collies lead the list of the most intelligent dog breeds, according to a survey of dog-obedience judges; they’re followed by poodles, German shepherds, golden retrievers, Dobermans, Shetland sheepdogs and Labrador retrievers.) Dogs can learn to solve spatial problems — figuring out the fastest route to a favorite chair, locating a hidden treat — and can learn to operate simple mechanisms like latches.

(MORE: Video: Animal Intelligence: Birds That Use Tools)

Most impressive of all is dogs’ ability to learn about humans. They respond to our gestures, they attend to our body language, and they follow our gaze to figure out what we’re looking at. They even are susceptible to repeating human yawns, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. As the longest-domesticated species, dogs have evolved alongside humans, selected over thousands of years for traits that make them especially sensitive to our cues. Another study from the journal Science reported that puppies only a few weeks old could interpret human signals, while full-grown wolves raised by humans could not. Dogs read people better than do chimpanzees, humans’ closest primate relative, according to research published this year. In fact, the most accurate comparison is to a human child: dogs have the social-cognition capacities of a 2-year-old. (The dogs in one recent study can claim another similarity to iPhone-loving toddlers: their ability to understand abstract concepts was probed by having them use touchscreen computers.)

(MORE: Inside the Minds of Animals)

Even deeper insight into the canine mind may be on the way. Scientists this year reported the results of the first brain scans conducted on awake, unrestrained dogs that were trained to lie perfectly still inside an MRI machine. The aim of the experiment was to find out which brain circuits would respond when the dogs’ human owners made a gesture offering food. The scans showed that when a treat was promised, a pattern of activity appeared in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain associated with the anticipation of reward. (The dogs wore special earmuffs to protect their hearing in the noisy machine, and one dog in particular, a former shelter dog named Callie, enjoyed the approval she got from experimenters so much that she would jump into the scanner uninvited.)

(MORE: Why Bats Are So Misunderstood)

Gregory Berns, the Emory University researcher who led the MRI study, writes that there are “endless” questions still to be explored: How do dogs distinguish among the humans they know; is it by sight or smell? What meaning does our language have to them? How do their minds represent humans and other animals, including other dogs? The study of canine cognition, he notes, ultimately brings us back to our own desires and behaviors: “Because humans, in effect, created dogs through domestication, the canine mind reflects back to us how we see ourselves through the eyes, ears, and noses of another species.”

149 comments
diamondgirl
diamondgirl

dogs are definately a person's best friend.  they have proven over and over to be more loyal than humans.  i simply cannot get along and do not want to be around people that do not like dogs or other animals.  if they can treats animals terribly, they certainly will treat other people the same way.  my dogs have always made me feel more at ease and happy to be living.  i thank GOD every day for creating such a wonderful, intelligent animal for us to take care of and love.

Mamesbr
Mamesbr

@ayanosm え?うちの、偏差値の高い犬のこと?

Timelord
Timelord

Dogs have a greater understanding of the human race then most of us think.

They even can influence a human

Aren't they humans companion since some 50,000 years?

Don't you think they have adapted in this period ?

Sookey Capote
Sookey Capote

It never fails to amaze me, how researchers get PAID to find out what every dog owner of even average intelligence figured out by the time their first dog was three years old.

Paul W
Paul W

If you want a dog to go away, just say "Bath".  Our dog was so smart we had to resort to spelling out the word, but he quickly identified the spelled-out B-A-T-H as another word for Bath.

Ever since reading "Solomon's Rings" I've been interested in the relationship between man and domestic animals, and made lots of interesting observations:

- Animals know how to communicate with us.  I visited a friend when a white cat approached his neighbor's door.  It looked at me and meowed.  I knocked on the neighbor's door, the neighbor opened it and the cat went inside. 

- The Bath story

- A Parrot belonging to a friend bent his head to let me scratch the back of his neck.  Birds are reptilian, but Parrot species understand human words and remember songs. My brother had a Cockatiel, he would hum a bar from Tequila, and the bird would whistle the next bar

- Chimpanzees can improvise tools

- When Border Collies herd cattle, that's not an easy thing to do.  Have you ever tried to herd cattle?  Do dogs by nature herd cattle?  They don't.  Herding cattle is a people skill that dogs can do equally

- As for humans, we pride ourselves as being separate from the other animals, but that other animals have language, social skills, reasoning abilities, ability to understand abstract concepts and use tools make the distinction less than clear.

Palladia
Palladia

The local library has two cats.  One is an inside cat, and one is in-and-out.  This morning when I went to return a book, I was approached by the outside cat, who accompanied me up the steps to the building, and waited expectantly for me to open the door.  The library wasn't open yet, and I couldn't let him in.  So I sat with him and petted him for a while.  When he left, he was curled up on a chair on the porch, waiting for it to open.

Danyz
Danyz

Hot dang! Life long welfare. Hope nobody catches on...

Coleman123
Coleman123

The dogs are saying to eachother, "Just keep playing dumb, fellows. If they find out we,'re smarter than they are, they'll stop feeding us and we'll have to start working for a living."

Morey Soffo
Morey Soffo

A quote from my father:  "The way a man treats his dog in public is the way he treats his family in private."  

Shams Aci
Shams Aci

Its really amazing and interesting to know that  Dogs can count, use touchscreen computers and understand hundreds of words. Soon we might find out what they really think of us.

- A.R.Shams's Reflection - Press and Online Publications

http://arshamssreflection.blog/..

t_reese
t_reese

My dog has me trained very well..

Contra
Contra

"...The average dog can learn 165 words, notes psychologist Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia, and some superdogs can have a vocabulary of 250 words..."

There you have it folks!  Proof positive that domesticated canines have far more extensive vocabularies than Inner-City Ferals!

Uptohere1
Uptohere1

Since I started working from home, I have had the experience of being with a dog 24/7. House training and all kinds of other interactions have gone as smooth as butter. I really think that most dogs just want to be around us all the time, and a lot of their so-called misbehavior comes from being lonely, bored, left uncertain as to what we want from them etc.  My dog can easily read my facial expressions --- if I even look worried or upset, she watches me in anxiety, tilts her head, tries to comfort me. When I am relieved, she goes about her own business again. She too knows a large number of toys, "counts" them from time to time and goes into ecstasies of anxiety if I pick up her bed of toys in order to vacuum under it. If only we had evolved from canines instead of from simians. We would look better, be more moral and honest, less violent and have a lot more fun overall.

Greg Swann
Greg Swann

Dancing Bear Fallacy. It's what tax-supported academics do to get "treats."

BenVeritas
BenVeritas

We bred dogs into existence to be machines that dispense unconditional love.

obbop
obbop

 I hope the frail elderly woman remembers that as the BIG dog's jaws clamp upon her and ensures her death as the blood gushes forth and the pain fills her entire being.

Palladia
Palladia

Oh, please.  Any given person is MUCH more likely to come to harm at the hands of humans than because of a dog's behavior.  Look at the statistics.

RhedNiele
RhedNiele

Obbop, my BIG dog was my mom's most caring, loyal and devoted caregiver in her final days. My dog laid gently by mom's side providing much comfort and companionship to mom who LOVED having her there. Please use some discretion before you make sweeping generaliz

Chiefpr
Chiefpr

Sorry you're so dumb.

obbop
obbop

Still no way to shut the constantly LOUD barking mutts up when the owner does not have even the cognitive abilities of the mutt.

Palladia
Palladia

Well, you could talk to the owner.  You could complain to the police.  You could call the animal control people.  If, of course, you were smart enough to do these things.

David_W_Nicholas
David_W_Nicholas

 

My wife recently had cataract surgery. The day after, the surgeon removed her patch, and she's recovering nicely. However, when she came home one of our dogs sat on the couch near her. He's short, a dachsund mix (we think) and very attuned to her. When he saw she was sitting with one eye mostly closed...he did the same thing! Closed one eye, and sat there looking at her with the other, open one...

 

Very weird...

David_W_Nicholas
David_W_Nicholas

 

My wife recently had cataract surgery. The day after, the surgeon removed her patch, and she's recovering nicely. However, when she came home one of our dogs sat on the couch near her. He's short, a dachsund mix (we think) and very attuned to her. When he saw she was sitting with one eye mostly closed...he did the same thing! Closed one eye, and sat there looking at her with the other, open one...

 

Very weird...

Lordbinder
Lordbinder

I know exactly what my dog is thinking SQUIRREL

Jeffrey C. Riter
Jeffrey C. Riter

Our two year old Springer would help us get the cat when he snuck out and went into the bushes.  We would tell Pearl to "get Willy!", and she would find him and pin him down until we could come over and pick him  up.  Smart dog!  We miss her!

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

I had a dog once named Amber, and I was curious to see how smart she was.  I read about this test you could do where you show your dog a treat, then you place the treat  under a coffee can whilst the dog is looking; the faster the dog figured out to knock over the can to get the treat, the smarter the dog was supposed to be.

So, I did this with Amber, showed her a treat, placed it under the can with her watching, then said "get it."  Amber went right up to the can, sniffed it, the tipped it just enough with her nose to swipe the treat out with her paw, then she let the can back down into place and ate her treat.  The book I got the test from never told me how to score "figured out how to get the treat without knocking over the can." 

OldVet66
OldVet66

My grand-dog Cali not only knows many different toys by name; she knows which car to get in for a ride by our names!

lauren_nyc_24
lauren_nyc_24

My dog knows my cat's name.  If I say, "Where's Dita?" he'll run over to the cat (Dita).

Tha_Duck
Tha_Duck

Growing up I would wrestle my dogs, (had three mutts, a rottweiler, and a cockerspaniel/hound mix.) after about a year of "practice, they got stronger and were able to anticipate my next move. I tell ya, not one of my dogs ever lost a fight with another stray dog, thanks to their wrestling practice, no body's dog had squat on my dogs supreme wrestling skills.  (No bets were made, and they were all unintended fights.)

abby0802
abby0802

I know what my dog is thinking:  

servant, let me out.  servant, let me in.  servant, make  my bed.  servant, cook my chicken just right.  servant, I like pilaf with my chicken.  servant, I like broccoli and brussel sprouts but not peas.  servant, turn down the television, I'm trying to sleep.  servant, rub my belly -- a little to the left.  servant, take me out for my daily walk now.and gee, why are my servants so slow in following my commands...yeah, I know what she's thinking .... 

architect424
architect424

I think your dog is actually a cat...

Palladia
Palladia

You know the saying: dogs have family; cats have staff.

LindaLuttrell
LindaLuttrell

Maybe they should consult "Chet amp; Bernie."  "Chet" never seems to be at a loss for his own opinions!

TridentIII
TridentIII

What was that Sam Neil movie where he remembers a past life as a dog when drinking a certain wine? I love the descriptions of his reasoning etc.

Cane Pazzo
Cane Pazzo

What's on your dog's mind?  Its next meal! We hung a bell by the sliding door. On the first day our German Shepherd learned to ring it letting us know she had to go out.

ivas4
ivas4

dogs > humans

eastsidedude
eastsidedude

My dog, mostly Jack Russell, has a bunch of toys. Her first toy ever was "toy" and she knew it. When she got another, it was "new toy". The next was "brand new toy". Then came "rope" and "ball" and "the kong ball was "bouncy ball". I took her to a friend who was going to dog sit for a week and laid them all out on the floor and told her "get the rope", and she picked  the right one. The same with "brand new toy" and ""bouncy ball". One at a time she retrieved the right one. We don't give them nearly the props they should get for thir learning ability.

Babalu1
Babalu1

I can go one better.  My beagle/cocker was bi-lingual.  We could speak to him in English or in Spanish.  He understood both languages equally.  Also he would help make change when my husband and I were on different floors in our townhouse and I was in a rush to catch a train.  I could give him a $20 bill and tell him to take it to my husband ("Daddy") and he would rush down the stairs and give it to him without chewing it.  My husband could then give him smaller bills and tell him to take it to me and he would run right up with the money and give it to me.  Again no chewing!!!!  He was such a sweetheart and so smart.  This story just touches on how smart he was.  Oh how I miss him.  . .

Drinky_Crow
Drinky_Crow

I have two Shiba Inus. The words that every Shiba Inu knows are me, mine, my and I. They also follow a very specific set of rules:

What's mine is mine.

What's yours is mine.

Until you don't want it anymore, then it's yours. Until you want it again.

Patrick Horan
Patrick Horan

We  have a lab "pictured" and when anyone says "get me an apple " he runs to the tree, surveys the apples available, then leaps up and grabs one down off the tree and brings it to whoever asked for it.

gmansback
gmansback

What I suspected all along. We don't train our dogs, they train us.

karlfromaz
karlfromaz

Mine is thinking that Comrade Obama should resign!

Ken3580
Ken3580

Dog:  Wow, this guy doesn't have to hunt because he can magically make food come out of a bag.  He must be God!!!! 

Bobby
Bobby

My dog's thoughts:  bacon,bacon,bacon,toy, GOTTA PEE!, bacon, bacon, walk, ewww, why are you naked? bacon,bacon, bed time.