Canine Cognition


Photo by J. Nichole Smith |

Canine cognition is how a dog’s mind processes the world around it. Knowing your dog’s cognitive style will help you understand what drives him, how he learns and what he needs from you to make learning easier. Cognitive science is the study of the mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, linguistics and anthropology. Cognitive scientific research is revolutionizing our understanding of dogs and providing vital data that can be used to go deep into the canine mind.

'My Dog Is a Slow Learner'
Cognition celebrates many types of intelligence. If a dog finds learning difficult or is slow to pick up on a person’s cues, it doesn't necessarily mean he's not smart. Instead, he might learn in a different way from what is usually expected.

Learning can be influenced by the environment in which a dog is raised. Dogs that are reared in less nurturing environments tend to be less reliant on a person’s attempts to communicate physically or vocally, while dogs raised in close contact with humans tend to rely much more on people to guide and direct them. The more you understand your dog’s cognitive style, the easier he will be to teach.

Can Dogs Understand Us?
Because dogs have evolved with us for thousands of years, they have adapted and acquired the abilities needed to successfully cohabit with humans. They're able to make inferences, understand human gestures, read intentions and be sensitive to human attentional and emotional states. They also have the ability to understand easy words, imitate human physical language, empathize with our emotions and develop a unique way of bonding with us. Even though some dogs might be selective in who and what they follow, the more cooperative and rewarding you are, the more your dog will want to pay attention to you!

Thousands of years of domestication has played a large part in the human/dog relationship and as the two species have evolved together, so too has our ability to connect and understand one other. Because of our long relationship, dogs have evolved to be cognitively more similar to us than we are to our closest relatives, the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo.

How Do I Know What My Dog Is Thinking?
Science is continuing to make remarkable discoveries about dogs and now you can use this science yourself to discover your own dog’s unique cognitive style, thanks to Dognition, the brainchild of Dr. Brian Hare and his team at Duke University's Canine Cognition Center. Find out more about canine cognition and Dognition here.

Do Dogs Decline Cognitively As They Get Older?
Like humans, senior dogs can experience a slowing of their cognitive processes as they age, which affects many aspects of their lives. As well as slowing down physically, older dogs can experience behavioral changes that seem unusual or out of character, which could be a result of cognitive decline. These changes include:

  • Less desire to interact and enjoy activities
  • Abnormally long sleep patterns, particularly throughout the day
  • Toileting accidents in the home
  • Depression and avoidance behavior
  • Sudden appearance of anxiety issues such as separation anxiety and aggression
  • Confusion within a usual environment.
  • Irritability and less tolerance for human touch.

How Can I Keep My Dog Cognitively Healthy?
Canine cognitive decline can be equally difficult for dogs and their owners but there are things you can do your throughout your dog’s life to keep him cognitively healthy even into old age. These include:

  1. Giving your dog regular exercise.  Exercise not only benefits a dog physically but provides a different environment that challenges and stimulates the senses, particularly the sense of smell. Among other benefits exercise increases serotonin and dopamine levels, neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for regulating emotions, promoting feelings of pleasure and increased motor coordination. Exercise promotes a feeling of calm and lowers stress both in people and in dogs. Make sure the level of exercise is appropriate for your dog’s age, stamina level and breed type.
  2. Playing scent games.  Scent work is a dog sport that is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and is inspired by the work of scent detection dogs. The sport requires extensive physical and mental stimulation from the dog, making it a great way to burn off excess energy and reduce behavioral problems at home. Because searches can be conducted just about anywhere, training and learning can happen as part of a dog sport team or as a casual exercise at home. Enhancing your dog’s scenting abilities provides a great ‘work out’ for the brain and is a perfect activity for the elderly canine.
  3. Dog sports are a great way to bond with your dog and give your canine companion exercise and mental stimulation. Participating in a dog sport such as agility promotes team work and bonding. Dogs of any age can successfully participate in a dog sport as long as the age, breed type and stamina level is taken into account.
  4. Hunting for food.  Meal times can be used to test your dog’s hunting skills. Instead of feeding your dog from a food bowl, feed him from a toy instead. You can put his food into a toy or treat ball and hide it around the home or yard so that your dog has to find his dinner. This allows your dog to use his seeking skills which promotes healthy brain function.
  5. Giving your dog a puzzle.  There are many great puzzles on the market designed specifically for dogs. Food can be hidden within these puzzles that vary in levels of difficulty. Puzzles enhance a dog’s natural problem solving abilities and are great for cognitive health.

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3 thoughts on “Canine Cognition

  1. AverageDogOwner

    i find my two dogs fascinating. There is some communication problem with
    my "velcro dog" as he doesn't seem to "learn" very quickly, but it is not for
    lack of trying on either side. He often resorts to process of elimination trying
    to figure out what i want. My female is the opposite, very independent, checks
    in periodically, but doesn't stay by my side - and yet she has an amazing
    capacity to learn. Just by watching me in the yard, learning by example, she
    pulls weeds. She understands i don't like those particular plants and she pulls
    them out.

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