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What Do Dogs Think?: Expert Q&A

The leader of the Dog Cognition Lab in New York City and an expert in canine cognition answers questions on everything from whether dogs know what we're thinking to whether they suffer from schizophrenia. If your question wasn't answered here, try watching the NOVA scienceNOW program, "What Are Animals Thinking?"


Thanks, everyone, for your questions! As a scientist, it is thrilling that so many dog-owners and otherwise dog-interested viewers are keen to understand more about the quadrupeds running around in their homes. Research into dog cognition is very new, and the more we learn, the more we realize we do not yet know. If you are interested in following the progress of our lab, visit periodically or find us on Facebook.

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Q: My female Lab appears to be able to "read my mind." Even when not "doing" anything other than thinking, "Going to take Emma for a walk," she starts acting the same as when I tell her that we are going to take a walk. Please explain. Tom Balestiere, Austin, TX

Alexandra Horowitz: One of the most delightful things about dogs is their attention to us: I think of them as near-anthropologists among us, watching us, observing our movements, noticing our habits. In this way, dogs become very good at reading human behavior: some of the simplest comparative-psychology studies of dogs show how readily dogs follow our gaze or our points, for instance. More subtly, dogs can often notice small differences in our behavior: how we get up from the couch when either going to the fridge or readying to go for a walk are different. Dogs notice that. Where we look and how we move both differ. Perhaps Emma is noticing these subtleties in you. (You might be interested to know that ethologist and Nobel Prize-winner Konrad Lorenz made much the same observation as you have...)

Q: I often talk to my dogs like they are human but they usually seem to understand or respond accordingly. Am I just projecting what I think is understanding, is it the tone of my voice, or do they sometimes seem to grasp slightly complex ideas? Jason, Karn

Horowitz: Probably more than any other non-human animal, dogs are spoken to as though they understand what we are saying. Their quietness in response could be read as lack of understanding, but it as easily reads as "quiet consideration." Dogs can attend to specific words, if you use them carefully, as, for instance, the recent long-term study by John Pilley of a border collie named Chaser showed. Chaser learned 1,022 words—simply by Pilley using them reliably and regularly when talking to her. Dogs can understand many words, if we talk to them clearly. But our powers of the "projection" you referenced far exceed dogs' power to understand language. Dogs are markedly better equipped to understand nouns and verbs. Adjectives, adverbs, and other tricky parts of speech appear to be largely beyond their ken.

Q: When a dog puts their front or back paw on my foot while I am petting it or while it is barking at another dog, is this dominance, possessiveness or something more complex? I hate to simplify every interpretation through the lens of pack status. Kim, Somerville

Q: Things my cattle dog/lab mix does that puzzle me: - leans her body against me (or others) and remains - "backs" rear first towards me, with a wishful look in her eyes I perceive one as protective, and the next as "will you pet me?" Correct? Thx! Julie, Boston

Horowitz: Both these questions tell me that the questioners are very observant. One of the rewarding things about living with an animal such as a dog is the realization that she is an individual, with personality quirks, who forms a singular relationship with the person she lives with. I think the best relationships are forged of good mutual observation. Still, it is not the case that every move an animal (or person) makes means something. Some behaviors might just be pleasurable, or coincidental, and nothing more, just as with our own behaviors. With all these examples of behavior—all of which may indeed be characteristic of the individual dog—I think the best explanations are simple. Putting a paw on a foot when feeling unsure of another dog, or when being petted, is the simple result of proximity. Leaning against a person (a trait of one of my dogs, too, which I rather enjoy) might simply be pleasurable. Backing toward a person may be, too, although it could also be a request for some rump-tickling.

Q: Sometimes when my dog comes to me all excited, I have to discern what he wants. When I ask and hit on the right thing, he "sneezes" and it seems like he is saying an emphatic "Yes." Is this a correct interpretation? Bonnie, Oakland

Q: Dogs snort to clear out their nostrils for better smelling... but what about when they come up to me and look at me, and then snort? It seems like it's an indication that they want me to do something for them—maybe go on a smelling expedition? Jason Silver, Sydenham, Ontario, Canada

Horowitz: I wish scientists studied sneezes and snorts. We don't have a lot of scientific information to appeal to here, but I too have noticed a sneeze being used as a kind of punctuation -- sometimes as a comma, to change course, and sometimes as a kind of exclamation mark. I think it is clear that, like a person coughing or clearing her throat, a sneeze could be used in a quasi-meaningful way. There is likely no one meaning, though. Snorts might be used similarly, but there is one more interesting element to them: as the question mentions, snorting gets rid of the smell currently inside the nose. So it may be some indication that a dog is moving on: ready for a new topic/smell/activity. We'll see if any research pops up and can tell us more.

Q: Can dogs suffer from the same kind of conditions as humans, such as chronic depression, schizophrenia and mania? Can they have learning disabilities also? Sheree, Sleepy Hollow, IL

Horowitz: Absolutely. Depression is well documented; compulsive disorders, phobias, etcetera, too. I don't know about schizophrenia, but it seems plausible that dogs could have disorders that overlaps with some elements of it. Dogs' brains are visibly different from humans', but the fundamental elements—kinds of neural cells, and the ways neurons communicate with each other, using neurotransmitters—are the same for people and dogs (and all creatures with a nervous system, for that matter). Depression may arise from a depletion of the neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin, for instance; the same can happen in dogs.

I would, however, urge that you engage in a bit of scientific caution: dogs' behavior (and thus psychological condition) does not necessarily map identically to our own, no matter how much we might wish that this were so. A dog who chases his tail madly and joyfully is quite likely simply being playful, and may well be inviting play. If you see a person chasing his own rump and slapping the ground, even if it is just briefly, you should probably avoid playing with him, no matter how nicely he asks.

Q: My dog (Bichon Frise) is super playful and smart. Randomly, she whines. The whine is all broken up and almost sounds like she is trying to speak. Do dogs ever think they are human and try to speak like us? Miami, FL Zapp, You

Horowitz: This question reminds me of one of the theories about the origin of barking in dogs. Notably, wolves, who share a common ancestor with dogs, do not bark much at all, but as we all know, dogs range from occasional woofers to constant yappers. Given that many of their behaviors were selected for by people (the process of domestication), it is possible that, way back, we selected for barking dogs -- they would be better guards, for instance. And some dogs may have been more barky because, this theory suggests, they were trying to mimic speech sounds. This is only a theory, and it doesn't mean that barks = dog speech. But one could imagine that a whine, or any other vocalization, could also be the dog's way of contributing to the noise in the house. After all, we humans are very noisy, yammering on all day and night. (Of course, too, whines are also meaningful, and may be expressions of anxiety or attention-getters...)