Can Dogs Think Ahead?

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Introduction

Think about this little experiment and what the outcome means. 

You set up a long slope behind a big screen. The dog can see the top of the slope and the bottom, but not the middle. You place a ball at the top of the slope and let it go. What does the dog do?

This deceptively simple test is actually one way of working out if dogs can anticipate the future or not. The argument goes that if the dog runs ahead to the bottom of the slope, they've predicted the eventual landing place of the ball based purely on planning and mental intuition, rather than seeing the ball. In human parlance this is known as planning and shows dogs can think ahead. 

Go ahead...try it and see what happens. 

Signs of a Dog Thinking Ahead

Since it's not clear whether dogs do think ahead or not, it's tricky to know what to look for. 

Thinking ahead generally involves a degree of planning. Take the example of the dog who - regular as clockwork - sits by the door when the kids are due home from school. (More of this in the science section).

The signs this dog shows are attentiveness and body language which could be interpreted as patience, that is, waiting for the predicted event to happen. 

If the dog is thinking ahead and planning for an event they wish to influence, such as hastening a mealtime along, then this would involve actions to make this happen. For example, the dog might fetch their food bowl and place it at your feet. The thought process behind this is, "If I fetch my bowl and give it to my owner, then they'll feed me." 

If this happened, then it would be a great example fo forward thinking. However, it's difficult to untangle this from a whole host of learned or training factors. These can accidentally teach 'cause and effect', which the dog remembers. This makes it appear the dog is planning ahead, whereas instead they've accidentally been trained to bring the bowl by previous praise or reward when they happened to pick the bowl up. 

Body Language

Some signs to look for if your dog can think ahead include:
  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Listening
  • Wag tail
  • Raise ears
  • Head turning

Other Signs

More clues that your pooch is thinking ahead are:
  • Completing as action which makes something happen, such as fetching a leash
  • Watching out of a window
  • Excitement or restlessness before a known event

The History of Dogs Thinking Ahead

Its only in recent decades that dog behavior and psychology has been taken seriously as a science. Unlike in the distant past, researchers observe dogs in as natural a setting as possible and try to leave their own bias and preconceptions about dogs behind. 

Not only has this revealed the social nature of dogs and how they act in pack or family settings, but it allows for a deeper analysis of the emotional development and motivation. 

Indeed, in the past couple of decades, this science has taken an even more exciting turn. With the aid of sophisticated imaging equipment such as MRI scanners, it's possible to visualize the brain at work. 

Thus, it's possible to watch a dog's brain real-time as a dog things through a problem. By seeing which parts of the brain light up, this tells us which emotions the dog is experiencing. Thus, we now know a dog's pleasure at seeing his owner is different from the pleasure derived by getting a treat. 

Since little work has been done on whether dogs plan or not, this could be a rich source of research moving forward. 

The Science of Dogs Thinking Ahead

It is a topic of much debate exactly how much (if at all) dogs anticipate future events. Part of the problem is that dogs learn by cause and effect. Thus, you may think the dog knows what time your partner comes home and waits at the door in anticipation. On the face of it, this shows a degree of forward planning, but does it?

In truth, the dog has picked up subtle cues that tell them it's nearly time for the other pet parent to return. This might be the sound of a favorite TV show or the angle of the shadows, or even the sound of the car engine in the driveway. 

Either way, the dog learned that when they notice those cues and go to the door, they are rewarded by their owner coming home. This isn't true thinking ahead, but more a form of reward-based training. 

However, there are few if any studies into how dogs might think ahead. There's many an owner who can tell stories of their dog prompting them to go for a walk by fetching a leash, and if that fails, next they bring the owner's shoes. This seems to suggest forward thinking on the part of the dog along the lines of, "If I fetch the leash, I might get a walk." 

Training a Dog to Think Ahead

Whilst it's not possible to train a dog to think ahead, it is possible to teach a trick that looks like thinking ahead. In fact, you may have accidentally done this and taught the dog to wait for the kids at the door at school's-out time. 

To impress friends and neighbors, tell them your dog always knows when it's their suppertime and licks their bowl. All you need do is find a cue that the dog notices, which they then link to a meal. Break the trick down into small steps, including going to the kitchen and lick their bowl as if hungry. 

A good cue is something like a striking clock. When the clock strikes, draw the dog's attention to it, then run excitedly into the kitchen. Praise the dog for following and give a reward. 

Repeat this, and start to add a cue such as, "What time is it?"

Eventually, on hearing the clock and the cue, the dog will run to the kitchen. Be sure to praise and reward the dog. 

Now teach the dog to lick their bowl. To start with, smear a small amount of peanut butter on the bowl. As the dog licks it off, praise them. Repeat this. 

Then, run everything together. Have the clock strike, the dog run into the kitchen, and then lick peanut butter off the bowl. At the same time say "What time is it?" Then reward the dog by giving them dinner.

When running the trick for real, say "What time is it?" immediately before the clock strikes, so that it looks like the dog can tell the time. 

How to React to Your Dog Thinking Ahead:

  • Look for cues you may be giving your dog that signal something is about to happen.
  • Test your dog with the example given in the first paragraph to see if they can, in fact, think ahead.