Can Dogs Think for Themselves?

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Introduction

Dogs are known as pack animals, right? They work as a team, they function as a unit, and they (typically) do what's best for the group while protecting each individual member of the pack. Because of this pack mentality, it can be hard to picture dogs as individuals who have the ability to think for themselves. Even further, because dogs are so reliant on humans, it can be difficult to separate them from their human pack and consider them free-thinking beings. 

There is evidence to the contrary, however, and it's found in the simplest emotion - stubbornness. Dogs can be, and often are, incredibly stubborn. Consider how stubborn your dog was when you were first trying to train them to do something specific. If your dog didn't want to sit, they didn't sit. If they didn't want to roll over and play dead, they didn't roll over and play dead. 

While dogs do rely on people for most of their care, and function as pack animals, they certainly have the ability to think for themselves. To better understand the signs of a dog who can think for themselves and figure out how to train a stubborn dog, read on!

Signs Your Dog Can Think for Themselves

Dogs, though relatively reliant on people and being pack-functioning animals, do not lack the ability to think for themselves. In fact, there are tons of breeds of dogs that are typically stubborn, hard-headed, dominant, and difficult to train simply because they don't want to do what you want them to do - they want to do exactly what they want to do.

This is one of the biggest pieces of evidence that dogs are able to think for themselves. If your dog is hard to train and refuses to listen, it could be possible that he or she is confused, but it's also possible you simply have a stubborn, free-thinking dog who doesn't feel up to doing what you want to do. 

Signs of a stubborn dog include incessant and indiscriminate barking, jumping up, growling, unresponsiveness, physically overpowering, doesn't come when called, has problems walking on a leash, and acts as a part-time escape artist. It's possible your pooch is too free-thinking for his or her own good!

Body Language

Here are a few body cues that might suggest your dog is thinking for him or herself.
  • Barking
  • Howling
  • Scratching
  • Pacing
  • Lack of focus
  • Back hair on edge
  • Stalking
  • Averting eyes
  • Paw raised

Other Signs

Here are a few other signs that suggest free thinking:
  • Revenge bathroom behavior
  • Comes and goes as pleases
  • Issues walking on a leash
  • Escape artist behavior
  • Isolation
  • No loyalty
  • Refusal to learn tricks despite having the mental capacity to do so
  • Refusal to come when called
  • Incessant stubbornness

The History of Pack Mentality

Dogs are social pack animals. To put this as simply as possible, dogs have leaders and followers - an alpha dog, and other roles, but in general, dogs are used to functioning as a unit and acting in response to group mentality and what serves the entire pack the best. This sort of structure is inherently passed down to dogs from their wolf ancestors, and typically, pups will act this way when domesticated with their own "mini pack," meaning, they're likely to either think in terms of the family, or act based entirely on what they're human thinks and commands. 

It is possible, however, that dogs are able to think for themselves, but isn't always a likely case. In fact, according to the Telegraph, Dr. Bradley Smith, a psychologist, stated that dogs failed basic intelligence tests that wolves and wild dogs passed easily because domesticated dogs have become so entirely dependent and reliant on humans they have lost the ability to think for themselves and function without humans. 

That being said, this simply doesn't apply to every dog. Consider anecdotes you hear about dogs getting loose and surviving in the wild for days, months, or years without their people - this shows that most dogs retain the ability to think for themselves, even the highly domesticated ones. 

The Science Behind Dog Thinking

When we say "dogs think for themselves" we don't mean this in the exact same way that people do, and this is simply because cognitive function for dogs is different than it is for humans. Human brains are more sophisticated. 

However, according to PetMD, Dr. Jill Sackman says that most dogs have the level of cognition comparable to a three to five-year-old child. Dogs' brains are set up similarly to human brains, and even light up in the same sections when exposed to the same stimuli. 

But dog brains are smaller, have less folds, and are not able to process higher-level thoughts, making it difficult to claim that dogs, when they act a certain way, are directly saying "I'm behaving this way because I'm independent and free-thinking," further complicating the idea of dog's being able to think for themselves.

Training a Free-Thinking Dog

Owning a free-thinking doggo can come with plenty of rewards, but it can also be a difficult task to train a dog who is better able to think for themselves. This can often result in stubborn behavior and no desire to please their people by learning new tricks. In order to train an independent-thinking pup, you just need to consider a few extra tips.

First, go slowly with your dog while you train them to ensure that it's actually stubbornness and not confusion. Once you're certain your pup is simply ignoring you and not misunderstanding you, you can begin your stubborn pup training. We suggest ensuring that your dog understands you're alpha. Set rules and boundaries, act tough, be calmly assertive, don't force affection, and even use mealtime to your advantage by being the leader and eating first. 

We also suggest finding the right rewards for your dog. A stubborn dog won't always react to a reward they don't find interesting, so ensure you're working with something they appreciate. It's also important that you're always making training a habit and a consistent part of their day so they're able to understand that it's not going to go away. Make it a part of your daily routine to help reinforce wanted behavior and reward positive improvements. 

It's also important to work with a certified specialist if you're having trouble in order to train your stubborn pooch to perfection.

How to React if You Have an Independent Pooch:

  • Work with your dog at a slow pace.
  • Control your doggo's environment to better express that you're the alpha.
  • Be consistent with your pup.
  • Don't punish your dog unless he or she does something deserving of punishment.
  • If it's harmless, respect your dog's independence. If not, work on training your dog to respect your rules.
  • Make training a habit with your dog to instill the fact that you're alpha in his or her head.