5 min read


Can Dogs Think Like Humans?



5 min read


Can Dogs Think Like Humans?


Scientists are learning more about the psychology of the dog. At one time, it was believed that thinking required language. Cognition refers to processes to acquire knowledge and solve problems. These abilities involve memory, attention, comprehension, and information. There is also an emotional aspect to the psychology of thinking and responses.

We experience our dogs as loyal companions, willing to learn our commands, anticipate our routines, work and play with us and help us solve our problems. We capitalize on their abilities to use their powerful sense of scent and their willingness to protect and guard us. Have we given pause to consider the capacity of dogs to think like us? We are learning that dogs have ways of thinking that contribute to our dog/human bond.


Signs Your Dog is Thinking

Have you ever felt certain you knew what your dog was thinking by their expression? It could be that you are well attuned to your dog's habits, disposition, or body language. Our dogs cannot tell us what they are thinking with words. They show us their thoughts through their behaviors and body language. 

As a good pet owner, your relationship with your pet will be enhanced by your ability to observe and understand what your dog is thinking. The signs are clear and expressed through the dog's body posture, tail, ears, nose, mouth, and head.

Dogs have a clear way of telling us when they want to play. Dogs will signal to their owners and other dogs they want to play with a play bow. The front legs are extended and the rear is up. The dog may even give you a quick, little bark as if to say, "Let's go!". 

Your dog will be giving you indications of curiosity with a head tilt. When you see the head tilt, your dog is confused and is waiting for you to give clear directions. 

Is your dog howling while you are away? That is because your dog is a social creature. If living in the wild, the howls would summon the pack. Living with you, the dog is letting you know there is some companionship needed. If your dog is feeling insecure, you may see licking of the nose or yawning. That's not boredom. It's your dog's way of expressing anxiety.

Your dog will show you enjoyment when you are having time together and giving your dog a good petting. You will see your dog closing their eyes and holding still, showing you the feelings of relaxation and enjoyment. 

Your dog can anticipate your routines and rewards. The alert dog is postured in a forward pose, on the toes. You will see the ears forward and up. The nose will be smooth and the mouth will be closed. Some dogs will beg for the command in anticipation of the reward, with a play bark to tell you the dog is ready.

Body Language

Clear signs that your dog's mind is hard at work include:

  • Head Tilting
  • Howling
  • Lip Licking
  • Nose Licking
  • Play Bowing

Other Signs

Other signs that your dog is thinking are:

  • Yawning
  • Closing Their Eyes
  • Forward Posture

History of Dogs Thinking Like Us


All mammals share some structural characteristics in the brain. Scientists do not know if mammals share a common beginning or if the similarities evolved from having to solve similar life problems of finding food, staying safe and interacting with others of one's own or other species. 

The dog brain is similar to the human brain, but is smaller. While dogs do not have the physical ability to speak human words, they do show us that they have cognitive abilities to think. Scientists have established that dogs are as smart as a toddler when it comes to their skills with vocabulary knowledge. They have the math abilities of a preschool age child. 

Dogs also have memory skills. They can remember familiar people, animals, and places. With their extraordinary sense of smell, they can recognize other dogs. Dogs can sense danger. They hunt. They learn search patterns. They can learn to discriminate sounds, smells and signals. Dogs will even establish routines and anticipate the habits of the humans in their households. These talents rely on cognitive processes that are not at all dissimilar from those that humans use to solve problems and adapt to daily challenges.

The Science of Dogs Thinking Like Us


Studies at the Duke University's Canine Cognition Center are revealing more about the brain of the dog. One fact to remember is that, just like humans, different dogs may solve problems differently. These differences will be due to age, experience, opportunity, motivation and the presence of support. 

Dogs read human signals and behavior better than any other species. In studies in which strangers and masters gave cues to dogs, the animals responded to the cues from their owners, not other people. Like children at the age of one year, the dogs were attentive to the signals of their family. 

The scientists also believed the study showed that dogs are complex social animals who understand they have different relationships with different people. Just as we must be attentive to learn our dog's signals, your pet will pick up on your body signs and signals as well.

In studies with an MRI, or brain scans, scientists have proven that the same areas of the brain will light up for words and rewards as occurs in the human brain. For example, the left hemisphere is associated with language in both humans and dogs. 

Another finding is that different functions are associated with one another similarly in the dog brain. To demonstrate, in the human brain, persons who are good at math also show good problem-solving in connected areas of the brain. This is the same with dogs. 

Where humans and dogs differ is in the development of the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is associated with higher level reasoning - executive functions that control behavior and thoughts. This may explain the differences in dogs and humans when it comes to impulse control. Your dog may do a great job maintaining obedience when you are present but then do things they are not supposed to do when you are away. 

Training Your Dog to Be a Thinker


Just as humans like puzzles and opportunities to use our brains to solve problems, your dog will enjoy playing games with you that will challenge their problem-solving abilities. These games will also capitalize on your dog's instincts and natural talents. Below are some great games for you to try with your pooch:

Treasure Hunt This game will build on your dog's ability to use scent and problem-solving to find an object. Start by making it successful for the dog. Have the dog "Sit-Stay". Then, hide a favorite toy in a place easy for the dog to find. You might begin by letting the dog watch you hide it. Then release the dog to locate the toy. Once your dog understands the task, you can gradually increase the complexity of the game, adding more places where the toy is hidden and more distractions. 

Hide and Seek You can play hide and seek by hiding something the dog has been trained to search out. Have one person give your dog a "Sit-Stay" command while the other person hides the object. Then release the dog to search and recover the object. 

Toy Pick Up Wouldn't it be nice to have your dog help you pick up? It will take time, but you can train your dog to pick up toys and put them in a designated place, such as a bucket. Teach the dog to drop a toy with the "Drop It" command. Use a clicker and treat to reward the dog for approaching the designated basket with the toy. Reward anything that brings the dog closer to dropping the toy in the basket. Once your dog learns to drop one toy, you can add other toys or objects for your dog to pick up and put in the basket.

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Written by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/09/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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