When most people consider the manner in which dogs think, they focus on one very obvious fact: dogs aren’t people. The assumption that follows is that dogs don’t think like people.
While it’s true that dog aren’t human and do indeed think differently to us, we’re more alike than you might think.
Dogs come to understand the world, and each other, in the same manner as human children are introduced to the world, through visual cues and scent clues. They are particularly keen observers of body language, and the amount of information they can glean from another dog’s posterior is astounding. Unlike humans, whose main form of communication and comprehension is vocal, dogs rely predominantly on scent, followed by sight, then sound, and finally the use of their voice. As an example, a dog will learn a hand gesture – a visual cue – far quicker than a verbal command. If you tap your leg, they will learn that means ‘come here’ far more quickly than they will understand you speaking the words. In fact, once they understand the visual cue, it is the association of the sound with that hand gesture that teaches them what the words mean.
While there are similarities in the way humans and dogs think, there are also great differences. Dogs are fully aware of this difference and cannot be tricked into believing humans are dogs, even when we try our best to emulate them. Dogs are keen observers of human behaviour and understand the differences between people and dogs. They don’t attempt to communicate with humans in the same manner they would other dogs. They know we are different and wouldn’t understand them, so they act in a manner humans can understand.
Walking to the back door and barking at it is their version of asking to be let out.
Sitting in front of the cupboard they know contains their dinner and pawing at it is their way of telling us we’re hungry.
These are things that require human hands – opening doors, food packets, and pouring things into bowls. Dogs are fully aware that they can’t (usually) do these things themselves and are equally aware that humans can. They understand how we think, perhaps better than we understand how they think.
Dogs are certainly better at explaining things in human terms than we are at explaining things in dog terms. We teach them to understand our way of doing things because we can’t do things their way. Dogs, on the other hand, learn a totally different language in order to communicate with us, a language that crosses species – that’s pretty impressive.
Dogs are a lot smarter than people give them credit for.
So how do dogs think?
Dogs don’t read or write, so they don’t think in words and symbols the way humans do. However, they can certainly be taught to recognise symbols and words and the actions associated with them, but this is done through very careful training and isn’t their natural state.
But dogs are still very similar to us in what they think about, even if they don’t think about it in the same way. They have goals and needs. They know they need food and shelter, they usually have a keen desire to learn new things, and they retain their hunting instincts, buried in their genetic memories, from a time when dogs were wolves and hunted their own food. That’s why a wild dog will hunt, he won’t go hungry. But dogs also need to play and be entertained, and they need physical reassurance and comfort.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to understanding how dogs think is that they’re a lot like us, in terms of wants and needs; they simply perceive things differently and struggle to express themselves in a way we understand. Dogs have as many needs and wants as people, albeit concerning very different things. Once you understand what a dog needs and wants, it’s a lot easier to understand their behaviour, and you come closer to understanding how they think. But if you’re looking to work with animals and want to understand dogs better, you might benefit from one of our dog behaviour or canine first aid courses to get a better insight into man’s best friend.