The subject of how or what dogs think encompasses two different approaches. Not only what dogs think and how they think. There are volumes written on both subjects. So to devote a short examination of these subjects, of how and what dog’s think does not do these subjects justice. For a more exhaustive examination of the subjects, I recommend interested parties read the following experts in the field; Alexandra Horowitz, an animal behaviorist and author of “Inside of a Dog”; Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who became an animal neuroscientist and has authored two important books, “How Dogs Love Us” and “What Its Like To Be A Dog” and Stanley Coren, a psychologist and animal behaviorist and author of “How Dogs Think.” These authors and their books will give you an excellent beginning to understand the nature and nurture elements of dog cognition and behavior.
Human thought is characterized by the size and complexity of our prefrontal cortex, the single most important part of the brain that makes us different than the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the part of the brain that allows us to use and visualize our past, present, and future, to employ instant recall of memory, logic and rationality. We depend on this part of the brain to integrate and incorporate our knowledge, and our life experience at will. We, among all other animals, reign supreme because of this highly developed area of our brain. We use our five senses to acquire information that we utilize in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is not as highly developed in dogs or other animals as it is in humans. In terms of what we call intelligence, primates, such as apes and chimpanzees rate high on the intelligence scale just behind humans and they have highly developed prefrontal cortexes. Other animals that rate higher than dogs on most intelligence lists are elephants, dolphins and pigs. It is fair to say that in terms of the acquisition of knowledge we and dogs use our five senses to acquire information and then process it.
I believe the single most important sense humans use for the acquisition of information is our eyes. We process what we see and store it in our brains. For dogs, it is their sense of smell. Their olfactory system, starting with the bulb, which is directly behind the nose and connected directly to the brain, is many times larger than ours and some studies declare it many million times more sensitive than ours. It is estimated dogs have 300 million receptors to our 6 million. If you closely examine a dog when it meets someone or something, the nose wiggles and moves and you can see the dog processing what it smells. It responds to what it smells first. Today, we utilize dogs to smell out cancer, predict strokes and other medical events uses. They also smell our moods based on the hormones and pheromones it smells. Happy pheromones such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin and fear pheromones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, determine how the dog will respond to a human or another dog for that matter. And we cannot control our emotional responses to the dog or our environment. Add the sense of smell, the acute hearing of the dog. They can hear our breathing, our heartbeat and the tone of our voice, again, without us really being conscious of the effect we are having on the dog. And then the sense of sight, not that they see so well, but they their acquisition of sight is mainly based on movement. They know how to read body language, to the point that they see microexpressions that you may or may not know we are even doing.
After we better understand how dogs acquire information, we must better understand the interplay of the information with their brains. First and foremost, dogs are emotional animals. There are 7 blue ribbon emotions that we share with all other mammals. Once we know those emotions, we can understand better how dogs think. These emotions include Seeking, Rage, Fear, Panic, Lust (sex), Care, and Play. For the most part we can help the animal satisfy or control these emotions. We can satisfy some of these emotions for dogs’ well-being. and control or ameliorate others for ours. We just need to recognize these needs in our dogs and respect them when interacting, training or leading our dogs. The emotional needs of the dogs are a major factor in the dog’s life. As owners, to understand it’s emotional life allows us to enter into it’s brain. We share these emotions, so we can imagine how they feel in a sense. We intersect these emotions from our own life and experience allows us to have a sense of how they feel and think.