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Canine cognition: it is, quite frankly, the dog’s bollocks

Dug, the talking dog from the movie Up; beach corgi days; and thousands of Instagram posts devoted to our furry best friends. It is no secret that we love our dogs, but how do they feel about us? What is going on in their doggy heads?

According to Dr Deidre Barnett, a Clinical and Evolutionary Psychologist at Harvard Medical School, dogs probably dream about us. However, her deduction comes with a quite a serious caveat. This conclusion was made by extrapolating from her research into humans.

The history of research into the canine mind and our relationship with them spans over 100 years. The first study into canine cognition was performed by Edward L Thorndike in 1911.

His study found that dogs learn by conditioning. If an action is rewarded, the dog is more likely to associate the action with the reward and repeat the behaviour.

Later research found that dogs process and respond to information in a similar way too young children. Like infants, dogs can only feel basic emotions such as joy, affection, surprise, and fear.

They cannot feel complex emotions, of which guilt is an example. The ‘guilty look’ your dog gives you after they ruin your favourite futon is not due to a feeling of shame, but simply the anticipation of punishment. 

The development of modern technology such as thermal detectors and the MRI machine have allowed researchers to examine changes in the physiology of dogs when interacting with their owners.

Previous studies show that dogs are very attentive to their owner’s mannerisms and behaviours. They read human body language, track eye movements, distinguish different tones of voice, and use facial expressions to determine human emotion.

In 2015, using thermal detectors, Dr Ragen McGowan of Nestle Purina Research found that dogs experience excitement around their owner, as indicated by an increase in blood flow to their eyes, ears, heart, and paw pads.

“By identifying the internal indicators of what’s happening emotionally in dogs, we aim to enhance our knowledge of the most beneficial ways to interact with them,” said Dr McGowan.

However, Dr Rosalind Arden, a research associate at London School of Economics, has a slightly different perspective. Dr Arden’s work focuses on individual differences between dogs of a single breed. Her latest study, conducted by the University of Edinburgh, looked at the general intelligence of dogs.

The researchers found differences in the brainpower of individual dogs and evidence for a relationship between intelligence and health. Earlier this month, Dr Arden published a paper where she questioned the credibility of previous canine studies.

She mentions issues such as small sample sizes and a focus on generalising all dogs.

She argues studies should look at individual differences within the species and within different groups (i.e. gender, and breed).

105 years on, we are still learning new things about the canine brain.

Scientists still debate about how to best study their minds, but they all agree on one thing: dog is man’s best friend. 

Image: Balthazar

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