Inside the Canine Mind

March 25, 2022 - 6 minutes read

Our Canine Cognition series explores the many ways in which our scientists are studying how dogs think and experience their worlds. Follow this series to learn more about the work being done by an incredibly diverse team of experts at the Dog Aging Project.

Read all articles in the Canine Cognition series here.

What is your dog thinking?

While we’re a long way from being able to answer this question definitively, we have learned a tremendous amount about how dogs think, including the ways their minds are similar to, and different, from our own.

When we study how dogs think, we are trying to understand their cognition, the mental processes through which animals acquire, process, store, and act on information. Because cognitive processes are internal, we cannot observe them directly (even fancy brain imaging techniques still tell us little about the content of thought).

Consequently, studies of cognition typically use experiments that allow us to make inferences about cognition based on an animal’s behavior. However, it’s important to recognize that behavior and cognition are not the same thing. Rather, cognitive processes (thinking) help animals to make decisions that guide their behavior (doing).

Imagine that I asked you to remember where you last left your dog’s leash. In your mind, you can answer this question, without your body moving a muscle. And as humans, I could pose this question to you verbally and collect your answer as an oral or written response. In essence, you perform a behavior (writing or speaking) that allows me to understand something about your mind (where you think the dog’s leash is).

Unfortunately, when studying how dogs think, using written and oral questions and responses isn’t a very effective strategy! To solve this problem, scientists studying canine cognition find ways to pose questions and collect answers nonverbally.

One common approach uses a type of test called an object choice task. Object choice tasks present dogs with a series of distinct locations where a reward could be hidden. Researchers present the dogs with different types of information that could be used to find the reward, and then dogs are allowed to approach one of the options to indicate their choice.

For example, we may initially show the dog where the reward is hidden, but require them to remember this during a delay or distraction before they are allowed to search. The dog’s behavior (approach to one of the locations) is used to make inferences about their cognition (where they believe the reward to be located). Across the last two decades scientists have published hundreds of studies using these and similar techniques to probe questions ranging from how dogs reason about human body language to what they understand about gravity, simple tools, or spatial manipulations in a dog-friendly version of a shell game.

Pack member #405 Cooper performing an object choice task.

So, what do cognitive tests with dogs tell us about their intelligence?

Like many things in science, the answer is “it depends.” One thing we have learned across many years of studying animal cognition is that intelligence comes in multiple forms. In the same way that evolution has produced animals with spectacularly varying sizes, appearances, and behavioral repertoires, it has also produced different types of minds, each specialized for the specific challenges a given species is likely to encounter.

And even among individuals of the same species, different individuals can be smart in different ways. Any given cognitive test tells us about one aspect of a dog’s mind, but it is never the whole picture. Borrowing an idea from the psychologist Howard Gardner, we think that the most important question is not “How smart are dogs?” but rather “How are dogs smart?” By using different types of cognitive assessments, the Dog Aging Project aims to learn more about the ways that dogs understand the world around them and how and why these processes change across the lifespan.

21_Evan MacLean

Evan MacLean, PhD
Research Team