Our four-legged best friends are capable of so much: running around the yard at breakneck speeds, learning commands, begging for treats, and providing reassuring cuddles after a long day.
But, what’s actually going on in your furry companion’s brain?
Taking the time to understand what your dog is thinking will help you bond with your pooch in a brand new way. Understanding dog psychology allows you to comprehend why they behave the way they do so you can successfully respond to their needs (and correct any problematic behaviors).
How to Understand Your Dog
Breakthroughs in dog cognition science are allowing us to get to know our loyal friends on a whole new level. Let’s take a quick look at what experts know so far.
How Dogs Think
The way a dog thinks influences the way they behave. Historically, we’ve thought about dogs in terms of a pack hierarchy with dogs understanding alphas and omegas. But science has discovered that canine cognitive abilities are much more complex. Canine cognition includes how your dog communicates (with sounds and body language), how they respond to others, how they retain information, and how they problem solve.
Dog psychologists and trainers recommend using positive reinforcement. This is based on the “operant conditioning” principle, which states that animals can be trained with positive or negative stimuli following specific behaviors.
Giving dogs rewards like affection, toys, and treats after completing a positive behavior (like sitting when told) signals to a dog that if they do that action again, something positive will follow. On the flip side, if a dog experiences a negative reaction, they will try to avoid repeating that behavior.
Keep Your Dog’s Mind in Good Shape
Part of responsible dog ownership is providing for both a dog’s physical and mental needs. All dogs need mental stimulation to keep their minds working in peak condition. A lack of mental stimulation leads dogs to destructive behavior, anxiety, boredom, and frustration, so engaging their cognitive skills benefits you both.
Consider playing games that make your dog think, like playing “hide and seek” with kibble. You can also buy puzzle toys that engage your pup’s mind by making them spin, flip, roll, or throw them to discover hidden treats inside.
To bond even more with your canine companion, teach them tricks like “bow” or new commands like “leave it” or “drop it.”
Learn More About Dog Psychology
If you want to dig more into the mind of a dog, consider reading these helpful dog psychology books:
- What It’s Like to Be a Dog and Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns
- Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz
- The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
Why Dogs Are Trainable
Maybe you’re wondering what makes dogs so willing to learn new tricks and commands. Well, put simply, dogs want to make us happy. “Our dogs want to please us,” explains an article for the Cesar Milan Dog Psychology Center. “We just have to be clear and consistent with what we want.”
Intelligence also plays a huge role in a dog’s ability to be trained, but every breed has their own genetic history and personality that affects how easy they are to train.
Some dogs were bred for specific purposes. For example, herding breeds like Australian Shepherds and Corgis have an innate instinct to herd, so they were bred to protect livestock (and are now known for herding their families around).
Certain dog breeds might be easier to train than others. A few of them include:
- Doberman Pinschers
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Labrador Retrievers
- Australian Cattle Dogs
- Border Collies
Of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Any breed can present challenges when training and any dog can learn bad behaviors just as easily as good ones. That doesn’t make them any less intelligent—it just means you need to be extra patient.
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Fun Facts About the Mind of a Dog
These courageous creatures are known for being loyal, loving, and smart companions—but we bet you didn’t know these facts about how their brains work!
A Dog’s Experience Influences Their Level of Social Interactions
People evaluate other people’s behavior from a young age. Likewise, a study from the Canine Cognition Center at Yale found that a dog’s experiences shape their level of social evaluation tendencies. For example, trained agility dogs much preferred a prosocial actor in the study to an antisocial actor.
Dogs Are as Smart as Human Two-Year-Olds
A 2009 study from the American Psychological Association found that dogs understand more than 150 words and can be quite the tricksters—intentionally deceiving people and other dogs to get what they want. That puts them on par with any human two-year-old.
Dogs Dream Doggy Dreams
Have you ever watched Fido’s paws twitch as they sleep? Dogs, like us, go through Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles that allow them to sleep deeply and dream. Science suggests that not only do dogs dream, they dream about their waking activities. So when you see their paws twitching, it might mean that they’re chasing dream birds or rabbits.