Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can Dogs Make Decisions?

Canine brain studies reveal underlying structures activated in decision-making.

 "Working dog" by Lisa Norwood/CC BY 2.0
Source: "Working dog" by Lisa Norwood/CC BY 2.0

It is often claimed by their human counterparts that dogs do not have the capacity to reason because they lack language capacity. Instead, they think in terms of images, and, even when it looks like they have made a choice, their responses are merely “trained” or “conditioned” responses.

However, the use of brain imaging, specifically functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to study canine brains, as well as lesion studies, have gone far in showing that dogs do indeed process language in a manner that looks a lot like that of human beings. Further, fMRI studies have also suggested that dogs appear to process sensations such as scent in a manner similar to that of human beings.

One stumbling block to studying the ability of animals such as dogs to make decisions has been the idea that only humans (with the noted possible exception of a select few other species such as dolphins and orangutans) possess the capacity to draw practical conclusions. The dog is left in the unenviable position of being viewed as a brutish creature of stimulus-response, not a bonified member of the community of rational, autonomous beings.

Unfortunately, such claims may be due more to speciesism than to credible science. In this post, I want to suggest that dogs appear to have the same native neurological mechanisms needed to draw practical inferences as do humans.

The Myth of the Mind-Body Dichotomy

One myth not infrequently used to support rationalizations about the practical reasoning capacity of our canine friends appears to be a false idea about the nature of such reason itself. The idea in question is that the reasoning process is a purely cognitive, linguistic process that requires a faculty of reason that is lacking in, and thus beyond the capacity of our canine companions.

According to the latter idea, this so-called, “faculty” enjoys a special status over, above, and distinct from the visceral churnings of mere brutes. Indeed, this mind-body dualism is embedded in much of western philosophy beginning with Plato, enshrined in Western religions; classically defended by Rene Descartes in the 17th Century; described by contemporary British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, tongue-in-cheek, as the “ghost in the machine”; and empirically disconfirmed in the 20th Century by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his famous book, Descartes’ Error.

Nevertheless, this idea persists in the way humans often perceive (and treat) other animals. Under the influence of this persistent idea, when a dog brings his human parent a toy, the proffered explanation is that this was a causally conditioned physical response to environmental stimuli, not a decision. On the other hand, when a human being “fetches” an object, it is a result of deliberative judgment, a practical decision involving the special faculty of reason, which sets the physical body in motion.

However, as I will suggest when we look “under the hood” at the neurological processes that go on during such human practical decisions, we find a series of neurophenomenological activities that are consistent with the capacity of dogs to also make practical decisions.

The Neurophenomenological Correlates of Human Practical Reasoning

What does decision-making look like in the human brain?

When humans make practice decisions in ordinary life situations, they engage in practical reasoning. Practical reasoning involves making inferences. For example:

I might get COVID if I don’t wear a mask. But, I don’t want to get COVID. I should wear a mask.

Here you infer a conclusion from a set of premises. But what’s going on inside your brain, and what are you actually experiencing when you use language to express such practical inferences?

Based on current human (as well as nonhuman) fMRI studies, my hypothesis is that such reasoning consists of a conscious stream of associated images and interoceptive feelings. The latter feelings involve internal perceptions or awareness of bodily changes. When you form an image of having COVID you experience a visceral, negatively valent feeling of forebodingness inside you, which you then associate with the image of not wearing a mask, which, in turn, you associate with a further motivational feeling, a felt compelling need to wear the mask, which leads you to exclaim, “I should wear a mask.” Inside the skull, this motivational impulse is sent to a goal-oriented region of the brain known as the striatum, a mass of basal ganglia that are responsible for translating decisions into action. The latter area, especially one subarea known as the putamen, consists of dopamine neuron activation of which provides a positively valent feeling in anticipation of attaining the goal in question.

The abovementioned array of feelings is triggered by the prefrontal cortex of your brain, more specifically, the ventromedial part, which is involved in practical decision-making. This part of the brain triggers somatosensory structures such as the anterior cingulate cortex, the somatosensory cortices, and the insula, which harbor representations of feelings that you have experienced before. For example, the visceral feeling of forebodingness you have associated with COVID may have originally been associated with the viscerally negative experience of having had other illnesses such as influenza (for instance, a headachy sick feeling).

The original feeling of forebodingness was itself generated by a lower forebrain structure called the amygdala, which is associated with self-protection. Such negative feelings serve the purpose of keeping the person out of harm’s way by allowing her to feel the danger of getting sick or of other life-threatening or debilitating environmental threats. The amygdala stores such feelings in memory circuits, making them available to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex via the beforementioned somatosensory structures when something associated with them is imagined so that they can be used in a self-protective chain of reasoning.

The upshot is thus that practical reasoning consists of a flow of associated images and feelings. Schematically, we associate A with B, and B with C; so we, in turn, associate A with C. Thus, you associate your image of COVID with a headachy sick feeling, and the latter feeling with a felt motivation to wear a mask, so you associate COVID with the compelling image of wearing a mask. Such a series of associations is precisely what the activity of practical inference looks like, phenomenologically, in concert with activation of various cortical and subcortical regions of the brain.

 "Anatomy and physiology LS dog's brain" by Rlawson at English Wikibooks/CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: "Anatomy and physiology LS dog's brain" by Rlawson at English Wikibooks/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Canine Decision-Making Apparatus

Now, dogs also have such brain structures. For one, they have a prefrontal cortex. The ventromedial part of it (in particular, the orbitofrontal part aligned with their eyes, the same place it is located in humans) appears to play a decisive role in the exercise of judgment. Dogs with damage to this area appear to be disorganized and uninhibited, for example growling at a pleasant stimulus. This part of the brain is also bidirectionally connected to the amygdala, as in humans, thus suggesting that it plays a decisive role in modulating the self-protective impulses of the latter. Dogs also have an insular cortex; and a putamen, like humans. What is more, there is empirical evidence that such regions are activated when a dog relates socially to her human parent. So, while we are not in a position (at least not yet) to get inside the consciousness of a dog to confirm that the canine decisional process has the look and feel of one’s own conscious states (keep in mind you are also not directly acquainted with the states of consciousness of other humans beside yourself), good reason exists to believe that it may not be much different, at least in kind.

Clearly, dogs have the apparatus to form images and to associate them with interoceptive feelings. Accordingly, they have the apparatus to construct streams of related images and feelings. As such, they have the apparatus to engage in practical reasoning, that is, decision-making.

None of this is to discount that canine senses such as smell are markedly keener. Nor is it to deny that the abstract reasoning abilities of humans are unmatched by dogs. However, there is much to suggest that the practical reasoning centers, which include such components as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the various somatosensory structures, and the striatum (among other parts of the brain) are markedly similar both anatomically and functionally.

Can dogs make practical decisions? I believe it is a reasonable hypothesis that they can. I will leave for another occasion the profound implications this conclusion has for the rights of dogs as well as other animals who may also have decision-making capacity.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today