We feed them, we let them sleep in our beds, we play with them, we even talk to them. And of course, we love them. Any dog-owner will tell you that their pet has a remarkable capacity to understand the world around them. And they’re right. Scientists have figured out great ways to find out exactly what human’s best friend is capable of.
The Science of Animal Cognition
Over the past several years, one of the biggest advances in our human understanding of doggie cognition has been the use of MRI machines to scan dog brains. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, the process of taking an ongoing picture of what parts of the brain are lighting up through what external stimuli.
Dogs, as any doggie parent knows, are highly trainable. This trainable nature makes dogs great candidates for MRI machines, unlike non-domesticated wild animals like birds or bears.
Ragen McGowan, a scientist at Nestlé Purina specializing in dog cognition, takes full advantage of a certain type of MRI machine, the fMRI (which stands for functional MRI), to study these animals. These machines detect changes in blood flow and use that to measure brain activity.
Through ongoing research, McGowan has found out a lot about animal cognition and feelings. In a study done in 2015, McGowan found that a human’s presence leads to increased blood flow to a dog’s eyes, ears and paws, which means the dog is excited.
McGowan also studied what happens to dogs when they are being petted. We’ve known for some time that for humans, petting a beloved animal can lead to lower rates of stress and anxiety. Well, it turns out the same is true for dogs. When humans pet shelter dogs for 15 minutes or more, the dog’s heart rate decreases and it becomes less anxious overall.
Another recent study on dog cognition found that our beloved companion animals can tell the difference in our emotional expressions. In another study done with the fMRI machine, scientists found that not only can dogs tell the difference between happy and sad human faces, they also respond differently to them.
As Smart as Children
Animal psychologists have clocked dog intelligence at right around that of a two to two-and-a-half year old human child. The 2009 study which examined this found that dogs can understand up to 250 words and gestures. Even more surprising, the same study found that dogs can actually count low numbers (up to five) and even do simple math.
And have you ever experienced the emotions of your dog while you’re petting another animal or paying attention to something else? Do you imagine they feel something like human jealousy? Well, there’s science to back this up, too. Studies have found that dogs do, in fact, experience jealousy. Not only that, but dogs do their best to figure out how to “handle” the thing that’s taking their parent’s attention — and if they have to force the attention back on them, they will.
Dogs have been studied for their empathy, as well. A 2012 study examined dogs’ behavior towards distressed humans that weren’t their owners. While the study concluded that dogs display an empathy-like behavior, the scientists writing the report decided that it may be better explained as “emotional contagion” and a history of being rewarded for this type of emotional alertness. Is it empathy? Well, it sure seems like it.
Numerous other studies on dog behavior, emotion, and intelligence have found that dogs “eavesdrop” on human interactions to assess who is mean to their owner and who isn’t and that dogs follow their human’s gaze.
These studies may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our learning about dogs. And as for doggie parents? Well, they may know a lot more than the rest of us, just by observing their best canine companions every day.
The studies done on dog cognition all illuminate one thing: that humans may known much less about dog brains than we previously thought. As time goes on, more and more scientists are becoming interested in animal research, and with each new study done, we find out more about how our beloved pets think.