Thinking Dogs

A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
Do dogs think?

Many of you are thinking, Of course they do!

So, why am I even asking that question?

I recently taught a class on dog intelligence where we tried to decide what and how dogs think and how to define dog intelligence. I had just seen the movie The Imitation Game, and I mentioned the scene where the police investigator asks Alan Turing whether machines think. Turing’s response (paraphrased considerably) is that, if someone we know has different taste than we do — likes a book we hated or loves a food we don’t care for — we wouldn’t say that the person is not thinking, but that his or her thinking is different from ours. In the same vein, machines do not think as humans do, but they can follow a process that approximates human thinking, according to Turing.

Human thinking is conscious and active — that is, we are aware that we are doing it and do it intentionally. It is an attempt to understand something, solve a problem, answer a question, create connections or meaning. Human thinking is mostly done in words, though, as Temple Grandin points out in many of her books, people with autism do not always think in words but often in pictures or even video.

Dogs don’t necessarily think in the same ways as humans — or agree on everything or reach the same conclusions — but I would argue that dogs’ thinking is more similar to humans’ thinking than a computer’s is, if only because dogs are conscious and machines are not.

So, the simple answer is: Dogs do think, but they do it differently from the way humans think. They probably do not spend a lot of time planning for retirement or worrying about the bills or speculating about which stocks to invest in, for example. They do not appear to worry about things that they cannot control (unless it seems that dinner might be late …). They might think about their next meal or the dog beach or the cute shepherd down the block — not so different from some of what people think about.

All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys ...
All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys …
But even where their thoughts might meander to some of the same topics we’d think about, I bet that dogs do it very differently. While dogs are often taught to understand many, many words, I doubt that dogs actually think in words. Alexandra Horowitz, in Inside of a Dog, suggests that dogs think in smells and maybe in pictures. That makes sense when you consider how powerful their experience of scent is.

Another wonderful dog book, How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns opens the door a little bit toward understanding how thinking in smells might work. Berns trained his own dog, and then several other dogs, to lie still in an MRI so that he could get images of their brains — while they were awake. He did several experiments, including one where he mapped dogs’ reactions to the scent of a human from their own family and the scent of a different person. He also mapped their responses to a familiar and an unfamiliar dog. These tests, and others that measured response to cues indicating a desirable reward (bits of hot dog, I think) and cues indicating no reward, showed that dogs brains look very much like human brains. Dogs scenting their own humans showed similar responses to humans viewing photos of their loved ones, for example.

Regardless of how they do it, evidence that dogs think is all around us. When they bring a toy and ask us to play, beg for a bite of our sandwich, or stand by the door asking to go out, they are thinking and planning. The dog who creates a diversion so he can steal a coveted bone from his sibling dog is thinking and planning. The ability to anticipate where the Frisbee will come down and then to jump in a graceful arc to meet it reflects thinking (and a far better grasp of physics than I ever had). Service dogs show their thinking skills constantly in their ability to intuit what their partners need and offer it. The examples are endless; share yours in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Thinking Dogs

  1. My dog Carmen definitely thinks in words. She has an amazing vocabulary and we are being surprised by her new understandings every day. We’ve taken to spelling in front of her. I cannot say: cat, fox, uh oh or look without her going off!

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