what do dogs think about?

Have you ever wondered what dogs think about? For many dog owners, this is one of life’s big questions. 

Dogs share our lives, our homes, and even our beds. It can feel like we have a really strong connection with them, yet there are still so many things we don‘t know about what goes on in their minds.

In this article, we will investigate how dogs think, and answer common questions about canine self-awareness, memory, and emotion.

Table of Contents


1. What do dogs think about?

Although there are differences, the canine brain is similar to the human brain in many ways.

Like us, dogs have a cerebral cortex- the area of the brain responsible for consciousness, awareness, language, decision-making, emotion, learning and memory. So do dogs think like us? Well, yes and no.

The canine cerebral cortex is smaller than the human cortex, so although dogs have many similar cognitive processes to humans, it is likely that their thoughts are less complex.

Whereas humans may think about what they are doing next week, or next year, or think about the meaning of life, the thoughts of a dog are more likely to revolve around the present moment, the immediate past, and what may be happening imminently.

Dogs may not lie on the sofa thinking about their doggy best friend who they haven’t seen in a while, but if they see their friend coming down the street they will recognize them and feel many of the emotions that we do when greeting a loved one.

Dogs live much more in the present than humans do. They do not appear to worry about the future, or lament wrongdoings of the past in the same way that we might.

However, they are excellent learners and can form associations very quickly, which they then use to form predictions about what might happen next- especially if it is of significance to them.

For example, dogs can learn that the clothes their owner puts on in the morning can predict whether they are going to work or staying home with them.

It is unlikely that a dog would have abstract thoughts about how much they want to go on a car ride, but if their owner picks up the car keys the dog will show emotion and communicate that they want to come too.

Most of what we know about canine cognition comes from observations of their behavior and some scientific studies. There are many things we still don’t know about how they think.

2. Do dogs know their names?

Yes, dogs absolutely know their names! Not only that, but many dogs will also respond to a multitude of nicknames that their family use to communicate with them.

Do dogs understand the concept of what a name is? It’s hard to know. It is likely that they learn from early on that whenever someone says their name, it means something significant to them- cuddles, fuss, dinner time or walk time.

Through association, dogs can also learn the names of family members, other dogs, and even their toys.

3. Are dogs self-aware?

Dogs certainly have some level of self-awareness, just not to the extent that humans do. Historically, dogs always failed mirror tests for self-awareness in scientific studies- being unable to recognize their own reflection led scientists to conclude that dogs were not self-aware.

However, more recent studies have focused on the fact that dogs do not rely on vision in the same way that we do, and have come up with other ways of measuring canine self-awareness.

These studies showed that dogs are able to recognize their own scent, and they are also able to understand when their own body is in the way of something and move it accordingly.

Recognizing that their own body is distinct and separate from the environment is evidence that dogs do have basic self-awareness.

4. Do dogs remember people?

Ask anyone who has lost a dog and then been reunited after many years, and they will tell you that, yes, dogs definitely do remember people.

As pack animals, dogs are highly social and are pre-programmed to recognize individuals by sight, sound, and smell. Dogs form close bonds with family members and friends and will remember them in the same way that humans do.

5. Do dogs miss their owners?

In general, yes dogs do miss their owners when they are away. However, this will vary from dog to dog and may depend on the type of relationship they have with their owner.

For a dog who has a very strong bond with just one person and relies on the presence of that person to feel safe, the absence of that person will have a significant impact on that dog’s emotional state.

That dog will certainly ‘miss’ its owner and may find it difficult to live life normally until that person returns.

Other dogs are less reliant on their owner for emotional stability, or have strong bonds with more than one person- meaning that the absence of just one owner is not the end of the world to them.

However, just because a dog does not pine for its owner does not mean it won’t be pleased to see them when they return.

6. Do dogs have memories?

Dogs have good memories, but they remember things in a different way to humans. Dogs have ‘associative memories’, which means they remember things based on how they made them feel.

They remember people, places, and situations and whether they have positive or negative associations with them, based on past events. So your dog may arrive at the vet surgery and remember that he got scared the last time he was there.

Similarly, a dog will remember another dog who was mean to him, or a street where he got scared by a loud truck passing by. He will also remember that arriving at the beach means he will have fun, or going to the dog park means seeing his buddies.

These associative memories will affect the dog’s behavior the next time he finds himself in the same, or similar, situation.

Episodic memory is the ability to remember specific events- something humans are very good at! Scientists think that dogs can remember some events, but only if they were highly significant and involved strong emotions- either positive or negative. 

From an evolutionary perspective, dogs remember what they need to remember.

7. Do dogs have a sense of time?

Dogs do have a sense of time, but like many other cognitive abilities, it is not as well developed as that of humans. Dogs have internal body clocks, and if something happens at the same time each day they will start to expect it.

So they will know when they have meal times and if their owner arrives home at the same time each day, their dog will anticipate their arrival.

They are probably aware of the passing of time, many dogs with separation anxiety may be fine to be left alone for short periods but become increasingly anxious if left for too long.

Time as we know it, measured in minutes and hours, is a human construct and therefore dogs do not measure time in this way.

8. Can dogs sense sadness?

Many dog owners will tell you that their dog’s behavior changes when a family member is in emotional distress. As social animals, dogs are fine-tuned to read and respond to our body language.

They are masters of observation and they know when something is not right with their owners.

Do they understand the concept of sadness? We aren’t sure, but they absolutely understand the difference between positive and negative emotions.

They know when their owner is behaving unusually, and it is likely that they pick up on other signs that all is not well.

It has been scientifically proven that dogs can smell when their owners are stressed or sad– it is thought that they can detect the chemical changes in our breath and in our sweat.

9. Do dogs have emotions?

Yes, dogs do experience many emotions that humans do– the range of emotions that a dog experiences is similar to that of a human toddler.

Dogs can experience pleasure, joy, happiness, pain, anxiety, and fear. They even experience anger, jealousy and love.

Whether they experience more complex emotions such as pride, empathy, guilt, embarrassment or shame is still up for debate and is something that scientists are still to agree on.

10. Do dogs understand each other?

Dogs communicate with each other in a different way to humans. Whereas humans are predominantly verbal, with a bit of body language thrown in, dogs rely on body language as a primary method of communication.

Of course, they also use vocal communication such as barking and growling, but body language always comes first. Dogs have evolved a complex set of communication skills and they can have entire conversations without uttering a sound- so yes, dogs do understand each other.

Intricate movements of the eyes, ears, and mouth, tightening and loosening of the facial muscles, the speed and intensity of tail wags as well as body posture and movement will convey emotion and intention to other dogs.

Communication through body language is instinctive, but the communication skills of individual dogs are also honed through time and experience.

A dog who has not had the opportunity to interact with other dogs may have poor social skills and may not be so good at reading and responding to the body language of others. This is one reason why early and ongoing socialization around other dogs is important.

What do dogs think about? – Final thoughts

So, what do dogs think about? Well, dogs experience many of the same thoughts and feelings as we do.

Like humans, dogs think about the things that are essential for safety and survival such as food, having close companions, and avoiding danger.

Dogs appear to experience many of the emotions humans do, maybe on a simpler scale, but we don’t know for sure.

Most of what we know about canine cognition comes from observing their behavior, but the fact is, dogs cannot explain to us how they are feeling or what they are thinking about, so when it comes to the canine mind there are still many unanswered questions.


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