As humans, our heads are constantly churning with thoughts big and small. A recurring one, at least among pet parents: What do dogs think about—all day, every day?
Even after centuries, no one has exact answers. But researchers have been uncovering more and more likelihoods. In fact, a growing number of colleges and universities now house labs and centers devoted to studying canine cognition. Their work, along with that of other experts in psychology, neuroscience and biology, has been giving us more glimpses into what exactly goes on inside a dog’s mind.
Do Dogs Have Thoughts?
Yes, dogs “absolutely” have thoughts, says Dr. Emily Bray, a postdoctoral scholar in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center. “The fun part is trying to figure out what they’re thinking without being able to just ask them directly,” she adds.
Dogs’ thoughts—and their brains in general—aren’t exactly like ours. At the most basic level, there’s the size: A large dog’s brain is about as big as a lemon; a human’s is roughly the size of two clenched fists (1). Even taking body mass into account, a dog’s brain is proportionally smaller than a human’s.
Another difference lies in the frontal lobes. As the largest section of our brains, the frontal lobes are involved in problem-solving, memory, language, judgement, and impulse control, among other functions. And as it turns out, our frontal lobes take up significantly more brain real estate than dogs’ do—about a third of the human brain and just 10 percent in dogs (2). This could partly explain why your dog simply can’t control himself around those grilled hot dogs you left on the counter. Remembering this frontal lobe disparity may help you begin to understand some of your dog’s thoughts and behaviors.
But there are similarities between dog and human cognition, too, some of which may have evolved in dogs specifically because of their relationship to (and dependence on) us. Finger-pointing, for instance.
Human babies begin to understand pointing before they’re even a year old. “Whether you watched your mom point to a bird or you point to your favorite toy, you were beginning to build core communication skills,” says Dr. Brian Hare, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and author of the new book, Survival of the Friendliest. It turns out dogs get it, too. “When you point to something, dogs know that you are trying to help them in some way—like finding a ball,” Hare says.
In studies that involve dogs following a human’s point in order to find food, “intriguingly, dogs are much better at this task than apes, our closest living relatives,” Bray says. “One hypothesis that has been put forward is that these social skills were selected for during the process of domestication.”
“Even more amazingly,” Bray says, “dogs show evidence for fast-mapping—learning the meaning of a word by principles of deduction—previously only documented in our own species.”
And in another similarity to humans, as dogs age, their brains undergo changes that impact executive function, including memory and inhibitory control (3).
How Do Dogs Think?
“Thinking for dogs would probably not look like thinking for humans,” says Molly Byrne, a Ph.D student in the Canine Cognition Center at Boston College. “We have many structures that help us interpret the ideas and thoughts we have, and dogs do not have access to all of these structures, or in some cases, just use different structures.”
Internal monologue, for instance. Dogs can learn many words in human language—Byrne says some know up to 2,000 human words and can even use basic grammatical structures—but none of that reflects how dogs interact with each other, so it’s probably not the way they actually process their own thoughts.
So what language do dogs think in? Are they hearing barks the way we think in human words? According to Byrne, this is a common idea among pet parents—but it’s also unlikely. Barks between dogs are more about pitch and intensity than communicating specific words, she says.
Rather than thinking in a word-based language as we do, it’s more likely that a dog’s thoughts are rooted in several senses—chief among them, smell. Proportionally, a much larger portion of a dog’s brain is devoted to analyzing smells than a human’s is (4).
“Given what we know about the way that dogs process sensory information,” Byrne says, “I would expect their thoughts to include concepts formed from their primary sensory modes—maybe thinking in smells, images, or even some sorts of sounds.”
What Do Dogs Think About?
Dogs spend much of their day snoozing, but in the hours they’re awake, they probably spend time thinking about some of the same things that a 2- or 3-year-old child would: “Solving problems, what’s for dinner, what’s that over there?” Hare says.
“But as to what proportion of time dogs spend thinking about which subjects, no one knows,” he adds. “It’s probably safe to assume both dogs and small children are more mindful than adults—focused on the present, rather than what happened or what might happen.”
In general, Bray says dogs probably think about all the staples in their lives, from food and play to other dogs and their pet parents. Like humans, how much time they spend pondering a specific focus “depends on the dog and their individual preferences and experiences,” she notes.
What Do Dogs Think About When They Are Alone?
Some dogs simply curl up and go to sleep when their owners are away. Others may get stressed or even turn destructive—sometimes due to separation anxiety, other times just boredom.
As for what’s on their minds, it’s hard to pinpoint. “Some dogs experience distress when they are left alone, but it is hard to know if they are actually thinking about the person they wish they were with or just experiencing their own loneliness,” Byrne says. “More research would be needed to tell what the focus of these behaviors is.”
How to Tell What Your Dog is Thinking
You’ll never know exactly what’s happening inside that furry head, but you may be able to get pretty close. It’s as simple as careful observation mixed with context clues and some thinking of your own.
To start, Bray suggests learning about dogs’ body language. Master those visual clues, and you’ll have a clearer idea of what your dog is thinking and feeling when he’s yawning without being tired (often a sign of fear or anxiety) or baring his teeth (usually a sign of aggression), among other behaviors.
Beyond body language, “if you want to know what your dog is thinking about, pay close attention to what your dog pays attention to,” Byrne says. If your pup takes a long sniff around a telephone pole and then pees on it, he is probably taking in the scents of other dogs before leaving his own mark—and Byrne says he may be thinking about those other dogs he can smell.
Quietly observing your dog’s movements and actions can often reveal what’s on his mind. If you go into the kitchen and open the fridge, you’re probably thinking about food or feeling hungry. Now apply that to your dog and his dish or the cabinet where you store his food.
But it’s not only about these obvious connections. Byrne says dogs may also think about things they can’t see or aren’t doing themselves—like when he sniffs you after you come home and, most likely, is trying to figure out as much about your day as he can.
If your dog comes up and nudges your hand to be pet, “it is reasonable that they are thinking about you and their relationship with you,” Byrne says. “Or maybe they have an itch behind the ear they are trying to scratch.”