If only we could look into our dogs’ eyes and know exactly what they’re thinking. There might be visions of steaks sizzling on the grill or squirrels scampering up trees, but according to science, man’s best friend is capable of some pretty complicated cognition. As it turns out, a dog’s brain is surprisingly similar to a human brain. And while reading a dog’s mind is as impossible as reading a human’s, researchers and animal behaviorists are constantly delving into the complex minds of our best furry friends. From expressing emotion to telling time, there are countless studies that look into exactly how and what our dogs think. There’s speculation and more mysteries to solve, but one thing is clear: dogs think a lot like humans.
Here’s the proof:
Brain Function and Structure
Think back to your school days for a second. If you were one of those students who were good at math, there’s a good chance you’re also good at problem-solving. That’s because those specific skill sets are grouped together in the brain. This is what gives all humans their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. There are a select few in the population who excel at everything, but for the most part, people are good at some things and not so good at others. According to PetMD, this is the same for dogs.
Dr. Jill Sackman, a clinician in behavioral medicine and senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Michigan hospitals says,
“Certain skill sets come together. A dog that is fast and accurate in one task has the capacity to be fast and accurate in another task. That would lead us to believe that the heritability of intelligence and cognition is in some degree similar in dogs as it is in people.”
These cognitive abilities are the baseline that leads scientists to believe that dogs and humans aren’t so different after all.
Now let’s look deeper at the specific ways your dog’s brain is a lot like your own.
Too Stressed to Sleep
We’d wager that every human over the age of two has spent at least one night staring at the ceiling thinking about their problems. Counting sheep is no match for the anxiety and worry that floods your brain when the world goes quiet and you can’t sleep. It’s a pretty normal part of the human existence, and a study published by “The Royal Society” scientific journal shows that dogs’ brains put them in that same stressed-out and sleepless boat.
The study looks at how deeply dogs sleep after experiencing a variety of positive and negative situations. For some parts of the experiment, dogs were offered head scratches and were spoken to with soft, comforting voices. At other times, the dogs were approached by strangers or exposed to other potentially stressful situations. (Don’t worry, all the negative experiences were minor, and no dogs were harmed.)
The results weren’t surprising. In general, the dogs exposed to positive experiences had more consistent sleep than those that recently had a negative experience. Your dog’s troubles might be limited to finding the cat asleep on their favorite couch cushion or losing track of their special tennis ball, but you should never minimize your dog’s problems or anxieties. They feel stress in the same way you do. The next time you find yourself awake at 3 AM and contemplating that awkward thing you said five years ago, look to your dog. She might be doing the same thing.
Counting Down the Minutes— Sort of
If you start to think about your dog’s routine, this one shouldn’t be a big shock. Rain or shine, doesn’t your pup know when it’s time to go for a walk? What about meals? We would wager your dog knows exactly when their bowl should be full of food. Dogs know these things because in their own way, they’re capable of telling time. And they don’t need a clock to do it.
It’s hard to consider a dog’s concept of time without thinking in terms of our own system of hours and minutes. We’ve constructed an artificial means of tracking the planet’s path around the sun, but your dog’s brain isn’t capable of counting seconds. Researchers have a few working theories to explain a dog’s uncanny way of knowing exactly what time it is.
One of those theories has to do with the circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour cycle most organisms follow as part of their “internal clock.” They automatically respond to daily cues, like the changing of light, to have a general concept of what time it is.
Another theory is that dogs keep track of time by observing and learning the routines of the people and environments around them. They pick up on details like the positioning of the sun, the amount of light in a room, and even the positions of shadows. There are also social cues like a mail carrier that shows up at the same time every day or a family member returning home. A dog’s brain can mark these events and learn what to expect and how long they have to wait for something (like dinner) to happen.
A study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science looked at whether or not dogs could tell the difference between long and short intervals of time. For the experiment, researchers analyzed the behaviors and heart rates of 12 dogs. They studied how the dogs responded to being reunited with their owners after different lengths of separation. The study included half-hour, two-hour, and four-hour separations. The results concluded that dogs do indeed know the difference between a short amount of time and a longer amount of time—just like humans. The longer their humans were away, the more excited the dogs were when they reunited.
When you’re at work staring at the clock, know that your pup is also tracking the time while you’re away.
Dogs Get Jealous Too
The green-eyed monster strikes again, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether its host is human or canine. It’s hard not to feel jealous when your dog focuses her attention on someone other than you, and according to research, those feelings are a two-way street.
A study published in 2014 set out to offer insight into whether or not a dog’s brain is capable of coveting a person’s attention. Researchers started by having the dogs watch their favorite humans interact with toy dogs. In these cases, the dogs often displayed behaviors that suggested they were jealous. They pushed themselves between the toys and their owners and approached their owners wanting attention.
The dogs also watched their owners interact with other objects, like a plastic jack-o-lantern or children’s book. In these scenarios, the dogs showed fewer jealous behaviors. The study’s conclusion is that dogs are indeed capable of being jealous of other dogs. There’s also evidence that dogs can be jealous of people. And while we don’t want our dogs’ jealousy getting out control, you have to admit, it’s nice to know they care.
The Science of Love
This is it, the one question every dog person wants to be answered. Do our dogs really love us as we love them? If you’ve ever bonded with a furry family member, you probably have your own opinion on this matter. But there’s always that nagging thought in the back of your head. Is your relationship as strong as you think it is? Or is it actually based on your ability to dole out treats and belly rubs? Does your dog really love you for you?
Well worry no longer, pup parents. Science has an answer to these questions too—and we think you’ll like what you learn. But before we dive too deep into your dog’s brain, it’s important to think about what the word “love” actually means. It’s a powerful feeling, but at its core, it’s all about chemicals. Science has connected the feeling we call to love with a hormone called oxytocin. It’s often called the “love hormone,” and it typically shows up when mothers hug their children and spouses lock eyes. It facilitates bonds between humans, and evidence shows it does the same for dogs.
A 2015 study out of Japan tells us that when dogs stare into the eyes of their favorite humans, they experience spikes in their oxytocin levels. This suggests they enjoy those same warm and fuzzy feelings we do when we look at someone we love. It’s a good sign that dogs really do love us!
Another way to gauge a dog’s deepest feelings is to simply observe their behavior. Dogs tend to follow their favorite humans wherever they go. They jump into our laps the second we sit down and even keep us company in the bathroom. Some of that tail wagging and head nudging might have to do with our opposable thumbs and access to treat bags, but unlike other non-primates, dogs also show their emotions through direct eye contact. Laurie Santos, the director of the Yale University Center for Canine Cognition says,
“Looking into one another’s eyes can increase hormones associated with social bonding.”
All of these signs point to what we dog lovers already suspect—dogs are capable of feeling love. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that “love” is a subjective and complicated term. Dogs might not understand the emotion in the same way we do, but it’s safe to say a dog’s brain is capable of forming powerful connections toward people.
We welcome our dogs into our hearts and homes, and there’s no doubt in our minds that they’re more than pets—they’re family. From the moment they wake us up in the morning to their nightly ritual of stealing the blankets, we strive to understand their thoughts. We communicate in countless little ways and have learned to live and love together. The next time you wonder what’s going on in your dog’s brain, remember, their thoughts aren’t that much different than your own.