As much as we love our dogs, we still don’t quite understand what’s going on in their heads. But some researchers are on the hunt to solve the mystery of canine knowledge, starting with answering the most basic question: How do dogs think?
Research published last week in the journal Animal Cognition offers rare insight into how dogs’ minds form a representation of the world through their favorite objects: toys.
“If we can understand what senses dogs use when looking for toys, it could reveal how they feel about it” [that toy]Shany Dror, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells inverse†
What’s new – The researchers conducted two experiments to test the abilities of typical dogs and gifted word learners — canines that can quickly learn the names of toys — to distinguish between familiar objects such as toys in different circumstances.
Based on the way the gifted word learners used their senses to seek out and find the toys, researchers concluded that they formed “multisensory mental representations” of the toys. Essentially, these dogs form a mental image of their toys using various senses, such as smell and sight.
“The findings of this study suggest that when gifted word learner dogs hear the name of a familiar toy, it conjures up in their minds a mental image that encompasses the various characteristics of that toy, such as the way it looks and smells.” says Dror. †
Why it matters – If you’re still confused, Dror offers a simple comparison to the human mind.
“Let’s say I’m asking you to imagine a lemon. What would you imagine?” asks Dror.
You might picture a yellowish fruit in your head, or maybe you remember the sour taste and fresh smell of the citrus fruit.
“For people, thinking of a lemon often conjures up a mental image that involves several senses. This study suggests the same is true for dogs,” Dror explains.
It’s quite a remarkable finding, offering new insight into the similarities between human and canine thinking. Previously, researchers knew that gifted word learners could quickly learn the names of their beloved toys, but it was more difficult for the researchers to determine what the dogs were. think when they heard the name of a known object.
But now researchers have a better idea of how dogs form mental representations of familiar objects, bringing us one step closer to understanding how Fido’s brain works.
“Exploring the ways gifted word learners think about their named toys is fascinating because it gives us the opportunity to see how verbal labels can influence the way other species think about objects,” Dror says.
But the study isn’t just a thought experiment — it could also help dog owners better understand how their own pets perceive the world around them.
“These findings may help dog owners better understand how their dogs think about their environment and the objects in it,” Dror concludes.
How they did it – In the first experiment in the study, researchers conducted two different experiments to see how the two groups of canines — three gifted word learners and 10 typical dogs — differentiate between and recognize their toys in light and dark environments. In the second experiment in the study, researchers tested whether gifted word learning dogs could identify their toys by name — again, in both light and dark environments. In both experiments, the toys were placed in a separate room from the room where the owners and researchers were standing.
Both groups of dogs were able to distinguish between familiar objects and all dogs sniffed longer in the dark because they could not easily see the toys. Without light, dogs had to use other senses to identify their toys, which they successfully did. Dror says this finding suggests that owners’ training sessions with their pets — in which dogs learn to recognize their toys — helped the dogs “code” various characteristics of the toy, such as smell or appearance.
What’s next – In this study, researchers assessed how dogs differentiated between objects using multisensory representation. In future research, Dror hopes to address “the other side of the coin” and how typical and gifted word learner dogs categorize objects.
“Understanding this can take us one small step closer to understanding how verbal labels affect the internal mental processes of another species,” Dror says.
Think your dog is a gifted word learner? The researchers are still looking for these genius pups to participate in future canine research. If your dog is particularly adept at learning the names of toys, you can contact the study coordinators through this website. Your dog may be able to take us one step closer to understanding the canine mind.