How Dogs Think

Dognition Sophie

See what we learned from our live community Facebook chat with Dognition’s Dr. Brian Hare.

We spend a lot of time with our dogs. And because they’re the companions who share every day with us, we’re curious about how they see the world. That’s why we teamed up with our partner, Dognition, who helps dog owners learn more about how their dogs think.

We’ve been learning a lot from Dognition, and we wanted to share their expertise and their love of dogs with our community. We partnered with Dr. Brian Hare, one of the founders of Dognition and the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, to share his point of view and help answer questions from dog owners on our Facebook page. Because he’s an expert in understanding how dogs think and how they form relationships with the people around them, we wanted to give dog owners a chance to ask him your questions about the pets that are a part of their life every day.

We opened the floor to dog owners, and, as always, they impressed us with the depth of their knowledge and love for their dogs. 

Dog Behavior and Communication

Fan Charlotte M. asked, “Since dogs obviously understand not only their own name, but that of everyone of import in the family/pack unit, is it possible they have a way of referring to each other as individuals as well? This has been found to be the case in some primates, elephants and dolphins.”

Dr. Hare: Great question! We haven't found that they call each other by name, but there's evidence that they know our voices and associate our faces with our voices. In one study, when dogs heard a familiar voice, and were then shown an unfamiliar face, they were surprised. So we do know that they can differentiate barks, but not that they know each other by name.

Fan Stephanie G. asked, “I have a jack rat terrier, why does it take her a while to warm up to people?”

Dr. Hare: While we all want our dogs to be relaxed and warm with people -- particularly our friends and family -- it’s important to keep in mind that each dog has its own personality and cognitive style. Some dogs are by nature more individualistic and others are more bonded. This varies dog to dog, not necessarily breed to breed.

The strategy that your dog is using to interact with people is totally valid. Be encouraging and patient. If you’re interested in learning more about your dog’s specific way of seeing the world, you can start Dognition for free, and the first game, empathy, will tell you more about the area you’re asking about here.

Fan Brenda H. asked, “So many questions I could ask, but here is one. My dog, a golden, is he truly so submissive when he goes down to show the tummy, or does he truly just always want to be rubbed?”

Dr. Hare: This is an interesting question that actually highlights one of the things that makes dogs both so special and so distinct from wolves and from other species.

In species that have very despotic social hierarchies -- meaning there are leaders and there are followers -- the meaning behind a specific gesture is very clear, and doesn’t change based on context. For example, when a chimp bares his teeth it always means the same thing.

However, in cases where the animals have more flexible social hierarchies, the signals they use become more flexible. This is the case with bonobos and with dogs. Unlike chimps or wolves or many other primates, dogs have very relaxed social hierarchy, so the meaning behind a dog’s gesture can vary depending on context. The upshot is that when your dog goes down to his tummy he (or she) isn’t necessarily more submissive -- he may actually be trying to just have his belly rubbed.

Dog Thinking and Memory

Fan Jody A. asked, “Does he remember mom and dad after leaving the ‘nest’ at 8 weeks, 3 ½ years later…and do the mothers remember their...litters later?”

Dr. Hare: There is experimental evidence that mothers remember their offspring and that offspring remember their mothers for a minimum of two years…and likely for their lives. But there is also evidence that siblings do not remember each other, unless they continue living with another sibling. No one has tested on dad—though I would guess they don’t remember their offspring, because unlike father wolves, male dogs typically don’t feed offspring.

Fan Charlotte M. asked, “Training seems to increase any dog's understanding, and basic behaviors build on each other. Has there been any research on whether this truly builds neuropathways in a dog in parts of the brain not expanded by regular day-to-day life? Specifically, their ability to understand vocabulary, chain commands together, etc.”

Dr. Hare: I think that some training would definitely cause changes in the brain's neuro-architecture. But I think the changes will be very specific to the type of intelligence that is being used in that task. For instance, if there's a training game in which the dog needs to find hidden objects, I imagine that would improve the dog's spatial memory, but it wouldn't affect the dog's empathy or inferential reasoning. At Dognition, we're really interested in the effects of training on different cognitive skills, and we're working with trainers to help us understand more. So that's the exciting thing; anyone can help us by participating in Dognition.

Different Sizes of Dogs

Fan Linda G. asked, “I would like to know the difference between a large and a small dog’s relationship with their human and why it occurs.”

Dr. Hare: I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question a few months ago, but thanks to the owners who have been using Dognition to understand their individual dogs, we have been able to get a view into patterns between specific types of dogs. Specifically, we have just seen that smaller dogs tend to be more independent rather that bonded compared to larger dogs. An even more interesting question is what is your dog’s particular strategy when it comes to empathy. While there are some patterns like this one that are true to groups of dogs, each dog has a unique way of seeing the world, and the most important thing to know is your own dog’s outlook. The empathy assessment is available for free at Dognition. Enjoy!

Far more than a dog intelligence test, Dognition delivers fresh perspective on your dog’s personality and everyday problem-solving skills. Play games grounded in canine cognition research and discover something new about your dog. Get started at today. 

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