Dog Smarts: The Science of What They Think About and Know

Dogs come to us with active minds, senses of humor, and multiple intelligences.

Posted Jul 03, 2018

Minding dogs: The formal and citizen science behind what they think about and what they know

I used to look at Smokey and think, ‘If you were a little smarter, you could tell me what you were thinking,’ and he’d look at me like he was saying, ‘If you were a little smarter, I wouldn’t have to.’” (Fred Jungclaus)

Dogs come to us with active minds, senses of humor, and significant smarts. What follows is a potpourri of what we know about what goes in in dogs' minds.1 It's the Year of the Dog, and what could be a better time than to revisit canine minds. 

In August 2016, Mary Devine shared with me this lovely story about her dog Meeka, which is an excellent example of citizen science and some of what goes on in a dog’s mind.  

My husband and I “adopted” a puppy from a shelter. We named her Meeka and brought her home when she was about three months old. Meeka was a Doberman, shep, lab, chow mix: the vet called her a “Heinz 57” dog. She weighed fiftty pounds as an adult dog. 

 Meeka was a highly intelligent and “territorial” dog. She had a tremendous receptive vocabulary (somewhere in my journals I wrote down the hundreds of words she understood). She learned and could follow multistep commands: it was second nature to me to say, “Meeka, you need to pick up your toys.” She, in turn, would pick up her toys, one by one, depositing them in her toy box until the floor was cleared. Although I understand dogs don’t see color (at least as we do), she could be told to “pick up your blue ball” because she had learned other differentiating traits of the “blue ball.” 

 Meeka was extremely territorial. She would walk the perimeter of our yard and, with limited instruction from us, never leave the yard: not to follow an errant ball, not to chase a much-hated cat. It wasn’t uncommon to have cars screech to a stop if a ball rolled onto our street with her in pursuit—only to have Meeka screech to a halt at the edge of the yard. 

Dogs are amazing beings with active minds, not robotic machines. For various reasons, we often make nonhuman animals out to be less intelligent and less emotional than detailed research in cognitive ethology shows them to be. However, we rarely do this with dogs. Indeed, we often embellish dogs’ abilities by a attributing special powers of knowing and feeling to them, but there’s no reason to do this because, as detailed empirical research has shown quite clearly, they are, in fact, smart and deeply emotional beings. All animals are smart in their own ways, to serve their own needs, and they demonstrate this intelligence all the time, if we only mind them enough to see it. They surely are not idiots, as a dog researcher once claimed. 

"Smart" dogs versus "dumb" dogs: Misleading comparisons 

In a 2013 interview in Scientific American, Brian Hare, coauthor, with Vanessa Woods, of The Genius of Dogs and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, was asked, “What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind?” He answered, “That there are ‘smart’ dogs and ‘dumb’ dogs,” replied Hare. “There’s still this throwback to a unidimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of.” 

Hare is right on the mark. There are multiple intelligences in dogs and other animals, and individual differences are to be expected. Research has shown that many different variables can influence a dog’s performance in laboratory settings, and I often wonder how the data collected in controlled experiments transfer to dogs in real life, as dogs run around at dog parks and other venues and cope with changing social contexts and physical environs.

The word “intelligence” generally refers to the ability of an individual to acquire knowledge and to use it to adapt to different situations and do what’s needed to accomplish various tasks and to survive. A friend of mine once told me about the free-running dogs she knew in a small town in Mexico who were cleverly street-smart and could survive in difficult conditions, but they didn’t listen to humans all that well. Some were skilled at tending and snatching food and avoiding dogcatchers, unfriendly dogs, and people. Some were good at “playing” humans for food, whereas others weren’t. Conversely, I’ve known some intelligent, crafty, and adaptable dogs who weren’t street-smart and likely couldn’t make it in such an environment. However, a few with whom I shared my home could easily steal my food and that of the other resident dog in a heartbeat, without either of us knowing what was happening. 

Which dogs were “smarter” and which “dumber”? Neither, of course. Relatively speaking, these dogs were equally intelligent, but they adapted their smarts to different circumstances.  

Dogs' theory of mind

One of the hot topics in ethology and animal research today is trying to figure out if nonhuman animals have what is called a theory of mind. That is, do nonhuman animals know that other animals have their own thoughts and feelings, ones that may be different than their own? A good deal of “higher” thinking and more complex emotions depend on having a theory of mind, so confirming this could open the door to confirming much more. 

With dogs, evidence is increasingly showing that they probably do have a theory of mind, and one of the main ways we’ve discerned this is through research on dog play (please also see "When Dogs Talk About Play They Take Turns Sharing Intentions"). When dogs (and other animals) play, there is a good deal of mind reading going on. Dogs note where others dog are looking—they confirm whether other dogs are paying attention to them—and they have to make careful and rapid assessments and predictions of what their play partner is likely to do. 

Consider two dogs, Harry and Mary. Each needs to pay close attention to what the other dog has done and is doing, and each uses this to predict what the other is likely to do next. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz has studied how dogs pay attention to attention itself during play. She discovered that play signals were sent nearly exclusively to forward-facing members of the same species, in this case other dogs; attention-getting behaviors were used most often when a playmate was facing away, and before signaling an interest to play. These dogs showed attention to, and acted to manipulate, a feature of other dogs that mediates their ability to respond: that feature in human interaction is called “attention.” In order to play fairly, have fun on the run, and behave as "moral mutts," there is a good deal of mind-reading going on here as Harry and Mary make careful and rapid assessments and predictions of what their play partner is likely to do. 

Ample data for a number of different species show there are predictable rules of play that cross species lines, namely, ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit when you’re wrong. This is why play is so exciting to engage in and also so much fun to watch and to study. And, this is also why play among young and old dogs, for example, only rarely escalates into injurious aggression. Indeed, Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and other free-running dogs at play.

Watching dogs negotiating play on the run strongly suggests they know that other dogs are also thinking and feeling –a true theory of mind. 

Canine memory and decision-making 

It’s hard to get inside the head of another animal. For instance, how much do dogs and other animals learn from just hanging out and observing their surroundings? We don’t really know. Many animals spend a lot of time resting, often peering around and taking in the landscape’s sights, sounds, and smells. Dogs surely do this. I have often smiled as I have watched the dogs with whom I share my home just hanging out and looking around at their dog and human friends and their environs. 

I am convinced that they pick up a lot of information this way and that what they learn can be used in their social encounters with others. Indeed, we know that dogs aren’t passive observers. They are able to make what are called third-party evaluations of humans and avoid people who don’t support their own human. Researcher James Anderson and his colleagues argue that dogs and other animals display a core morality that doesn’t depend on language or teaching—individuals learn who’s helpful or not and base their future interactions on what they’ve determined. Clearly, dogs are not automatons who are programmed to act in specific ways with little or no thought. They remember and make decisions. 

 I recall being shocked when I once read an essay by a psychologist claiming dogs don’t remember yesterday and are stuck in “an eternal present.” This ludicrous claim ignores tons of research showing that dogs have great memories and use this information in social and nonsocial contexts. Not only do past events influence dogs, but dogs also plan for the future. Anyone who’s rescued a dog who’s been abused knows how their past influences their behavior. Many detailed studies show that mental “time travel”—imagining the past and looking ahead to the future—is not uniquely human. Dogs also are able to infer the physical properties of an object by watching a human manipulate it and then recall the information thus gained for later use. In one study, after dogs were allowed to watch two swinging doors of different weights being opened, they were able to open the doors themselves, but only after first experiencing opening both doors themselves could they infer which door was lighter and act on that information.

The other dogs with whom I have happily shared my home were not as savvy as Jethro. A few rapidly learned about the black bears and cougars who visited our home and surrounding land, whereas a few didn’t and rather brazenly took forays beyond my property. None ever had a problem with our wild neighbors, so clearly each figured out their own way to coexist with these predators. Each dog was an individual, with her or his own “belief system” or conception of how the world works and the best choices to make. Dogs can adapt to a wide range of varying situations, and there is no reason to think that their differing responses are merely hard-wired stimulus-response reactions. The late Donald Griffin, an award-winning scientist who is often called the father of cognitive ethology, argued convincingly that flexibility in behavior, as a response to varying social and nonsocial conditions, is a marker of consciousness in nonhuman animals.  

 People often wonder how much information a dog can remember. In 2016, Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklósi from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, showed that dogs remember specific events happening around them. They not only remember what they have done but also what their owner did. For example, they may watch the owner cut the roses in the garden one day, and then when they see those owners again, this memory could pop up in their mind. This could happen without showing any change in behavior because this is just a spontaneous “thought,” although in some other cases such thoughts may actually become causes of spontaneous behavior.

This research reminded me of the many dogs I’ve known who acted like know-it-alls. They seemed to sense or know what I was going to do or what I wanted them to do, although I’d never explicitly taught them to make certain associations. They gleaned my intentions and figured out the way their world worked without any formal teaching.   

There’s a lot of interest in whether dogs understand human communication better than other animals because of their close relationship with people. We all know many dogs are able to learn the meaning of words such as “sit,” “stay,” and “come,” and the story of Meeka at the start of this story is another vivid example of how well dogs can understand what we mean quite specifically. Research shows that dogs have the ability to learn the meaning of hundreds or even as many as a thousand words.

In a paper called “Do Dogs Get the Point? A Review of Dog-Human Communication Ability,” researchers Juliane Kaminski and Marie Nitzschner noted that dogs use human communication more flexibly than either chimpanzees or wolves. One hypothesis holds that when we selected dogs for lower expressions of fear and aggression, one by-product was the evolution of more flexible social and cognitive skills surpassing those of their ancestor, the wolf.  Another hypothesis, the researchers explain, claims that dogs may have been specifically selected for certain tasks for which using human forms of communication was necessary and conclude that the “evidence to date suggests that dogs’ understanding of human forms of communication may be more specialized than was predicted by some and may be best explained as the result of a special adaptation of dogs to the specific activities humans have used them for.”

We also know that dogs can read our facial expressions. Dogs can recognize emotional states using mental representations, and they snub people who are mean to their owners and even reject their treats. Dogs can tell differences between happy and angry faces and recognize human emotions. We also know that, when a person is angry, dogs don’t trust that individual and won’t follow their pointing. So, even though dogs don’t speak human languages, they’ve learned to read us pretty well. 

Self-awareness in dogs

Are dogs self-aware? We really just don’t know. I conducted what has come to be called “the yellow snow study” when I walked my dog companion Jethro along the Boulder Creek trail, just outside city limits. To study the role of urine in eliciting urinating and marking, I moved urine-saturated snow (“yellow snow”) from place to place during five winters, and I compared the responses of Jethro to his own and others’ urine (for details please see "Hidden tales of yellow snow: What a dog's nose knows -- Making sense of scents" and "Dogs: When They Smell Their Pee They Know It's 'Me'"). When people saw me do this, they tended to avoid me and shake their head, clearly questioning my sanity. But the experiment was easy to conduct. You can easily don an ethologist’s hat and repeat this experiment and risk being called weird.

I learned that Jethro spent less time sniffing his own urine than that of other males or females and that, while his interest in his own urine waned with time, it remained relatively constant for other individuals’ urine. Jethro infrequently urinated over or sniffed and then immediately urinated over his own urine, and he marked over the urine of other males more frequently than he marked over the urine of females. I concluded from this that Jethro clearly had some sense of “self.” He displayed a sense of “mine-ness,” if not necessarily of “I-ness.” Biologist Roberto Cazzola Gatti confirmed my findings using what he called the “Sniff Test of Self-Recognition” on four dogs. In her book Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, Dr. Horowitz wrote about the results of a more systematic study of self-recognition with dogs in her cognition laboratory. She observes that the dogs “peed only on other dogs’ containers, not their own. They saw themselves.” While neither Dr. Horowitz nor I are sure that these studies confirm the presence of self-awareness, they do indicate an awareness of identity.

Dogs with a sense of humor

Pondering a dog’s sense of humor can uncover a lot about what they know. In his classic book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin wrote: “Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humor, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one, he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same maneuver, and evidently enjoying the practical joke.” 

While I’m always careful to say that I don’t really know if dogs and other animals have a sense of humor and enjoy comedy, the anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming. For example, my companion Jethro not only was a savvy food thief but also quite a jokester. He’d run around with his favorite stuffed animal, a rabbit, in his mouth, shaking it from side to side and often looking at the people who were around to see what effect this had on them. When they laughed while he was doing this, he seemed to do it more and more. When they weren’t paying attention to him, he would stop running around or he would bark, look to see if they were watching him, and continue running here and there with his stuffed toy. 

Or consider Benson the burper. My friend Marije tells me that Benson, a Bernese mountain dog, likes to come up to her, face to face, look her in the eyes, and burp. He seems to get a kick out of doing it and doesn’t burp at other times. Is this his way of saying “hello” or “I love you”? Or is he just having a good old time doing it to his human? Marije also insists that Benson is not mimicking her or her daughter Arianne.

Where to from here? It's an exciting time to be interested in dogs and other animals' minds

While we know quite a lot about dog "smarts" and their cognitive capacities, there's still much to learn. It's clear that dogs display multiple intelligences just as they display individually distinct personalities. Talking about "the dog" is extremely misleading because of enormous amounts of individual variation among domestic dogs. 

Clearly, it's an extremely exciting time to study animal minds. The field of cognitive ethology is growing rapidly and more neuroimaging studies are being conducted (please see "Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us" and links therein). Not only will comparative research into animal minds teach us a lot about them, but so too, we'll learn more about the evolution of cognition and about the origins of our cognitive skills.

One thing is for sure and that is we should be very careful in not underestimating what is going on in the minds of other animals. My take on matters at hand is that we're not learning anything that suggests that we've been overestimating their cognitive or emotional capacities. More data will only add to the rapidly growing database about their impressive and highly evolved cognitive and emotional lives, information that must be used on their behalf. Unfortunately, and very frequently, it is not.

If scientific studies of animal cognition and animal emotions stopped today, other animals should be just fine and also benefit from what we already know if we truly use the information we already have at hand. Indeed, we are compelled to use what we know because each and every life matters because each and every life is intrinsically valuable. 

Nonhuman animals need all the help they can get, and the information for giving them the very best lives possible is already available and just waiting to be used. Clearly, a good deal of what we know from detailed comparative research isn't used on their behalf. While there is still much to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, more scientific evidence won't refute the fact that they need to be treated with much more care, tenderness, and humaneness than they currently are. 

Returning to dogs for the moment, far too many who appear to be happy and content are not, and need much more from their and other humans to live high-quality lives and to be able to express their "doginess." They simply do not get what they want and need from us, and experts agree that we can do much more for them. Knowing about and honoring their cognitive and emotional lives is a step in the right direction for improving their and our lives. It's a win-win for all. 

1Excerpted and adapted from Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do in which numerous references can be found. Please also see this interview with Dr. Zazie Todd and listen to this interview on Talk Radio Europe and this one on How On Earth radio.

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