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What Is Your Dog Really Thinking?

November 19, 2010

For anyone who ever wondered what their dog might be thinking, Duke University researchers may have some answers.  The University’s Canine Cognition Center in Durham, North Carolina, is one of the few facilities in the nation to focus on how dogs think.

The researchers are studying dogs to better understand their limitations, and to help them improve, which could ultimately make dogs better at working with people with disabilities and with the military.

“We’re excited about describing the psychology of our dogs,” said professor Brian Hare, the lab’s director, in an interview with CNN.

“They are a very different species and they think about the world differently than we do. And we need to figure out what are the constraints on how they solve problems, how is it that they think differently from us. And I think that we’re going to be able to have a much, even richer relationship with dogs than we already do if we figure all that out,” Hare added.

“Different dogs solve different problems differently. And what we want to understand is: What is it that either makes dogs remarkable as a species or what is it that constrains the ability of dogs to solve problems?”

To assess the dogs’ ability, Hare and a team of graduate researchers put the dogs through a number of games similar to those typically played with young children.

“We don’t want to look at cute pet tricks. What we want to know is what does the dog understand about its world?” Hare said.

Hare has been studying dogs for nearly 15 years, and says our four-legged friends have figured out how to read human behavior and gestures better than any other species has.

“The way they think about their world is that people are super-important and they can solve almost any problem if they rely on people,” he said.

Dogs begin to recognize and rely on humans at about one year of age, roughly the same age as children do. 

Furthermore, dogs are complex social animals, and they understand that they have different relationships with different people, Hare said.

“They really narrow in and pay attention to you and they want to know what it is about the world that you can help them with,” Hare said.

Although dogs are not without their limitations, domestication has made them smart enough to understand the principle of connectivity, he said.

“They know they’re connected on a leash and [dogs reason] ‘Well, now I have to listen, because if I don’t do what you say you can stop me. Where if I’m … not on a leash, well, yeah, I know the command but I don’t have to listen to you now.’”

And like children, dogs also know that they can misbehave when their owners turn their back, particularly when they have been told not to do something.

“Your dog takes the food you just told it not to take, and you’re really upset because your dog disobeyed you, and you think that your dog is not obedient. Well, no, no, no, your dog was obedient but it realized that it could get away with it,” Hare said.

Ultimately, dogs may rely on humans, but they also use their own talents to manipulate their owners and their environment.   In other words, even though we humans like to think we’re in charge, it may actually be our dogs that call the shots.

The Duke Canine Cognition Center is now enrolling dogs. You can sign up your dog fillign out the online questionnaire located at their website below.

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