How does your dog’s mind work?

Exciting research reveals that the canine mind is much more complex than we think.

Exciting research reveals that the canine mind is much more complex than we think.

What goes on inside the canine mind? When it comes to the inner lives of our dogs, scientists are discovering new things all the time. We now know that dogs are mentally capable of much more than we ever thought possible. Studies show that our canine companions are deeply bonded to us and even look to us for information and guidance on how to navigate the world. Check out the highlights of some of this fascinating research:

Dogs form real attachment bonds

Dogs have evolved to have a close relationship with humans. In fact, research shows that people are important to dogs. In studies similar to those used to test for attachment in children (originally performed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s), researchers Michael Tomasello and Juliane Kaminski found that dogs display behaviours in response to their humans that are similar to the behaviours seen in infants. Dogs will approach their people when stressed, use them as a safe base for exploration, and exuberantly reunite with them after a separation.

Overall, these results support the idea that dogs form real attachment bonds with their humans. By exploring this unique relationship between dogs and humans, we can determine what canines have learned from living with us and what capacities they have for complex communication, cognition and emotion.

Dogs know when you’re paying attention

Dogs know when we are paying attention to them and can capitalize on that information. In a study by Brian Call from the Duke Canine Cognition Center, dogs were forbidden to take a piece of food, after which the experimenter either kept her eyes open and on the food, closed her eyes, feigned distraction by a computer game or turned her back. The dogs ate less food when the person was paying attention to them, compared to all other situations.

Marta Gácsi and colleagues at the Clever Dog Lab found that dogs will obey commands faster when the person giving the command is facing them and in sight. They also learned that dogs can tell the difference between intentional communications, such as pointing to food, versus accidental pointing (when checking a wristwatch, for example).

Dogs can decode our emotions

Dogs can recognize our faces, studies show. Ludwig Huber and his colleagues at the Clever Dog Lab found that dogs discriminate between images of their humans and unfamiliar people. Studies by Laura Cuaya and her colleagues, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), show that dogs use areas in their brains similar to the ones we use for processing human faces and voices. Dogs determine the meanings of our facial expressions using information from multiple facial features (not just the eyes). Researchers Sanni Somppi and colleagues at the University of Helsinki found that dogs respond rapidly, and with avoidance behavior, to threatening facial expressions in people. Dogs appeared to deem angry human faces as threatening to their safety, and acted to dispel this threat.

Dogs also can decode the emotion in our voices. Atilla Andics with the Comparative Ethology Research Group used fMRI to determine that the brain regions dogs use for processing human voices respond more strongly to positive vocalizations. To further understand what dogs know about our emotional states, Natalia Albuquerque and her colleagues presented dogs with photos of human faces that were either happy or angry, and paired each image with a vocalization that was either positive or negative. Dogs looked longer when the emotion on the face matched the emotion in the vocalization. These findings show that dogs can understand the validity of emotional information and can process these cues similarly to how we do.

Dogs use social referencing

Dogs also use information around how a person feels about a situation to determine how to react, a phenomenon called social referencing. Isabella Merola and her colleagues found that when dogs received positive messages from a person approaching an unfamiliar object, they also approached the object. This wasn’t the case when the person gave a negative emotional message about the object. Dogs responded even more strongly when their owners were giving the messages. This shows that dogs take in emotional information from us and use it to determine how they will respond to a situation.