6 min read


Can Dogs Think Abstractly?



6 min read


Can Dogs Think Abstractly?


We are now entering the Twilight Zone of doggy awareness, where the Labrador mooching around in the background may not be digging for bones but taking in the beauty of the day, as the sun beats warmly down on their back. Thinking outside the square is a human trait, or so we thought, until dogged scientists, fascinated with woofers, shocked us again with the news our dogs could be capable of thinking abstractly.

WOW! That’s something the philosophers of centuries past would not have thought possible. They denounced dogs as dummies and shut the door on the kennel. So what do you think? Can a dog think beyond its food bowl. Let’s put it to the test.


Signs a Dog Could Be an Abstract Thinker

Ever seen your pooch stare out the window and wag their tail like crazy? You look to see what the fuss is about but there’s nothing there. What can your dog see that has them so worked up? They are barking, jumping up at the window, and now, pacing around the door.

Maybe your woofer is having an abstract moment, enjoying the outside ambiance and taking in the scenery. It could have sparked a feeling of happiness and a wanting to get out outside.

Most people believe dogs are concrete thinkers that know the leash means walkies and the pet bed is intended for sleep. What if they can think abstractly? First, let’s clarify that a concrete thinker is one who lives in the here and now. Some would say scientists fall into this realm as they deal totally in the facts (possibly why the favorite tag at the end of a study is “inconclusive”).

Babies are typically concrete thinkers as they see the rattle, but if it’s not in their crib, there’s no reason to believe it exists. Concrete thinking is all about a "what you see is what you get," style of thought and what we rely on for everyday tasks and assessment.

An abstract thinker takes the ball and rolls it outside the physical world into a magical place of possibilities. Where a concrete thinker is focused on two eggs in front of them, an abstract thinker will be imagining eggs in all different shapes and form. Abstract thinking is the stuff artists are made of, who create great works that allow us to imagine our own interpretation.

It’s also the innovator-entrepreneur who dares to try a new concept from an old idea. To invite the theory that a Bichon, Husky, or Bulldog could be a risky, abstract thinker might go beyond the belief-set of universal man.

For most people, "dogs are dogs," with four legs, short or long, and adorable pointy or floppy ears. They don’t talk; instead, they bark, howl, or whine. That’s because they are dogs and descendants of wild wolves. Others consider our clever canines might be capable of far more - including abstract thought.

Bart, you’re raucous Rotty, loves barking at the neighbor’s cat and digging holes in his pet-dads vegetable patch. He’s a real character and everyone loves him at the dog park. He’s always a fun pooch, play-bowing with your friend's Chihuahua and drooling all over the grass. Bart is a gentle beast who seems to have his head bobbing in the clouds.

Bart could be an abstract thinker, taking in the sights and looking beyond the horizon. He could even be a Rotty-Einstein in the making. Most researchers are not sure whether dogs can reason or think abstractly, but wonder if they can.

Woofers are intelligent and can solve problems. If you’re arguing with your partner and the family pup comes close with a toy in their mouth, what do you make of it? Is it a knee-jerk reaction to their pet-parents falling out, or did the dog think that bringing a toy that usually makes their guardians laugh might end their quarrel? Did the dog reason a way to solve the problem and think abstractly as to how they could do it?

We need to keep an open mind, as it’s only been decades since science told us dogs have emotions and can tell if we're happy or sad!

Body Language

Signs a dog might be thinking abstractly are:<br/>

  • Barking
  • Digging
  • Jumping Up
  • Pacing
  • Head Bobbing
  • Play Bowing

Other Signs

More signs a dog could be capable of abstract thought include:<br/>

  • Problem Solving In Unique Ways
  • Performing Actions With Abstract Thought
  • Showing They Can Reason

History of Dogs Thinking Abstractly


Wolves appear to rationalize their actions, working as a team to keep their young ones safe and bring food to the table. They possibly analyze each situation and communicate concerns to the pack.

Looking back, humans were aware the wolf was a clever creature who could offer guarding and hunting skills to early man in a predatory domain. Together they were invincible, with the concrete thinking of humans and instinctive nature of the wolf. Whether these ancient animals were capable of abstract thinking is a mystery they’ll never divulge.

Wolves became dogs that were immortalized as the companion of humankind. For centuries, those with a passion for thought rendered the dog in the backyard as mute.There was nothing between those floppy ears but a will to herd and hunt. They were animals for our amusement and breeds to appease our narcissism.

In this day and age, we are keen observers of animal behaviors, wanting to understand those cute, doggy expressions or chimpanzee imitations. Animals are precariously balanced in a human-ruled planet and its make or break for many endangered species. We have a vested interest in how they think and feel. The closest member of the animal kingdom to us is the family mutt, who’s been under the microscope in recent times - revealing they are more evolved than most people knew.

Dogs are highly emotive and can take cues from people in the line of duty as K9’s plus they provide independence for those with vision and hearing impairments. They problem solve when the blood sugar levels drop on a person with diabetes and ring the alarm bells when a person is about to have a seizure. Yes, they are trained, but so are we in our jobs and by our parents throughout our growing years.

To assume dogs cannot reason or ever think abstractly is akin to past beliefs that they were robotic creatures made of flesh and bone. As dogs are continually surprising science its likely a few more “look what dogs can do,” discoveries are potentially coming our way.

Science of Dogs Thinking Abstractly


The science community has once again put dogs in the spotlight with a study revealing it’s possible a wolf's distant relative can think abstractly.

According to Softpedia, the study at Vienna University revealed dogs could categorize intricate images the same way humans do. Four dogs were trained to touch a computer screen showing pictures of landscapes and pooches. The dogs would be rewarded with a treat when it recognized a dog.

Once training was in place, the curious canines were presented with brand new images of dogs and landscapes. Each woofer continued to choose the picture of a dog, which implied they were thinking right outside the box and applying what they had learned to a new vision. Images of dogs were then superimposed over the top of landscape pictures and still, each dog chose a canine photo. Researchers were excited to see our skillful mutts were capable of abstract thought.

Dogs are presenting incredible capabilities as science delves into their mammal minds. They have been put through an MRI scanner as reported by National Geographic, to find they can recognize their owners and understand different tones of voices. 

Training Tips for Clever Canines


Like people, dogs have different styles of learning, with some taking longer than others to master basic techniques. Understanding the level of intelligence in your Beagle, Basenji, or Pug will be the guide to successful training. If a dog has been raised in a chaotic environment, their ability to take cues from humans will be limited. The woofer that has close, caring ties to their guardian will present a willingness to learn.

It’s possible dogs that grow up without human love could be more creative in their thinking, as they are forced to survive and think on their paws. The street dog comes to mind as a mutt that takes advantage of a human habitat, learning where the food scraps are and how to find shelter. Their instincts and cognitive abilities would be sharper than the dog, that relies on their pet-parent for everything.

People take on all kinds of jobs depending on their learning and ability to think abstractly. The marketing manager might need to think up big advertising ideas, while the factory worker puts the food in the container and dreams about painting like Picasso.

This brings to mind a story featured on Little Things about Chloe, a French bulldog who can paint. Granted, the image was outlined underneath a cutout, which she walked over with paint on her paws. Still, Chloe worked out how to do it and created her immortal masterpiece. (The paint was dog-friendly and no woofers were hurt.) 

Ever thought a dog could pilot a plane? The Daily Mail tells a winged tale of Shadow, a rescue pup that has been trained to fly a plane for a TV series, highlighting canine intelligence. The controls in the plane were modified for Shadow so he could press buttons and steer with his paws.

Dogs are being studied by researchers looking for truth. Can they think abstractly? What do you honestly think?

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Written by a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/04/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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