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How Dogs Think, Feel, and Communicate

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By: burgundy bug

Hoss gazes off into the distance

Source: Hoss feat. XtaSeay | Penelope Peru Photography

“BARK! BARK! BARK!” Neurons fire to one in another in the face of a feline, fire hydrant, mailman, or dog treat. “BAAAAAAARK,” neurons fire again as the owner walks out the door and leaves the canine behind for an eight-hour shift.

Dogs have been “man’s best friend” for thousands of years, reports a study published in Nature Communications – but, is man dog’s best friend? How do they regard human relationships? What do dogs think and feel? How do they communicate?

How Dogs Think

“Dogs have occupied a central place in modern comparative cognition, partly because of their specific past and present relationship with humans.”

Current Trends in Canine Problem-Solving and Cognition

All humans have a little voice in their head known as a conscience. It serves as a moral compass that assists in rationalizing, contemplating, and conceptualizing the world around them.

When researchers explore how dogs think, there are several factors to consider, as outlined in a 2016 Current Directions in Psychological Science review.

  1. In spite of domestication, dogs are still related to their wolf ancestors and the connection may be used as a comparison to study the effects of domestication on cognition.
  2. Dogs have the ability to form special relationships with humans.
  3. Evolutionarily, dogs have specific genome sequencing that provides further understanding of their cognition that’s unique to dogs.
  4. Dogs are highly trainable and sociable.

Dogs offer humans companionship, but there’s not a single concrete definition of what that companionship looks like.

“Fitting into a family and working as a herding sheepdog may favor different sets of social skills,” the review says.

Thus, dogs have developed a highly adaptable, incredibly flexible nature, even on a social level.

Measuring Canine Cognition

Diesel “happily” panting

Source: Diesel 02 | Penelope Peru Photography

Researchers can use eye tracking to monitor what dogs are paying attention to and functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity.

An MRI scan depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, according to the University of Utah. There’s an increase in blood flow to portions of the brain that are in use, which gives a real-time image of neural activity.

fMRI is similar to MRI, but it depicts metabolic activity in the brain to represent energy being consumed during various states of brain activity, according to Neurosurgery Clinics of America.

While researchers may not be able to ask dogs what they’re thinking, there are tools at their disposal that can give a better insight on canine cognition.

Through eye tracking, it’s observable when something visually captures a dog’s attention. Through fMRI scans, researchers can observe what dogs find rewarding and the neurological basis for a dog’s response to stimuli.

How Dogs Feel

Diesel gives puppy dog eyes…

Source: Diesel | Penelope Peru Photography

Using an fMRI to measure dog brain activity when exposed to familiar and unfamiliar scents in a 2015 Behavioural Processes study, researchers observed a specific response to human scents; the scent of their owners activated the reward response. The same was not the case when exposed to the smell of other dogs.

However, there’s no real way to tell whether dogs find the smell of their owners rewarding due to a social connection or a connection to their owners feeding them.

…For a piece of bacon?

Source: Diesel | Penelope Peru Photography

On the other hand, there are a number of studies that quantify the emotional connection between dogs and humans.

When dogs look at humans, a 2017 Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience study found their brains release oxytocin.

Oxytocin, sometimes touted as the “love hormone,” plays an important role in human social connections, according to the Hormone Health Network.

Women produce oxytocin during childbirth and breastfeeding that triggers a bond to their infants. Oxytocin also increases recognition, trust, and sexual arousal between partners.

Dog brains releasing oxytocin when they look at humans gives a neurochemical basis to being “man’s best friend.” It indicates a bond to our species that encourages them to recognize and trust humans.

“Man’s best friend”: XtaSeay snuggles Hoss

Source: XtaSeay feat. Hoss | Penelope Peru Photography

The Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience study also used eye-tracking to detect that dogs pay particular attention to the emotionally expressive regions of the human face. They tended to focus their gaze on the eyes, rather than the neck or forehead.

Additionally, dogs produce different facial expressions depending on the emotion behind the stimuli their presented, says a 2017 Scientific Reports study.

A 2016 Biology Letters study presented dogs with facial expressions from both humans and dogs while playing a sound that represented different emotions. The dogs looked longer at faces that matched the emotion of the sound played, which is a trait that had only been observed in humans before.

In other words, dogs can recognize emotion both visually and auditorily.

In a 2017 Animal Cognition study, dogs listened to four different audio clips – the first and last ones “emotional,” the second and third ones non-emotional sounds. In the first trial they used emotional sounds from a human, and emotional sounds from a dog in the second. The reaction of the dogs were also assigned different variables, both negative and positive, that were then rated on a scale from 0 to 10.

The dogs’ responses to each sound indicated they could detect the emotion behind each clip. Their responses to human and dog sounds were similar, but they were more likely to “freeze up” when hearing another dog – perhaps because they were trying to figure out how to react to the unfamiliar dog.

A 2014 Current Biology study compared how dogs turned their head in response to various commands and emotional sounds played from speakers on both sides of them simultaneously.

When the dogs heard a familiar command that had been stripped of its emotional context, the dog turned to the right 80 percent of the time. When an emotional-sounding sentence that didn’t necessarily make sense was played, the dog turned to the left 76 percent of the time.

These results further demonstrate dogs ability to separate emotion from the words themselves, but how much information dogs truly understand from each remains a mystery.

How Dogs Communicate

Diesel yawns after an afternoon of play

Source: Diesel | Penelope Peru Photography

Dogs use a blend of body language, vocalization, and odors to communicate, according to a 2018 Animals review. There are also differences and similarities between how dogs communicate with other dogs v.s. humans.

Elmo and Diesel “kiss”

Source: Pecking Pugs (Diesel and Elmo) | Penelope Peru Photography

Through their posture, dogs are able to express themselves physically, although the study does mention that selective breeding has affected the flexibility of certain dogs, impacting their ability to express emotion.

Some of the physical expressions dogs use include raising and lowering their bodies and wagging their tails. They also use eye contact to intimidate other dogs.

Additionally, dogs use their facial expressions to communicate with humans and indicate they’re paying attention to them.

Elmo showing off his pearly whites while lazing in a field

Source: Elmo | Penelope Peru Photography

In regards to vocal communication, dogs vary the length and pitch of barks to convey emotion. The study found dogs use shorter frequency barks for greeting, calling for attention, reacting during play, or to warn.

Growling is another important form of vocalization in dogs. Longer and lower frequency growls generally indicate warning or caution as a stranger approaches them, whereas higher frequency growls are reserved for when they’re isolated and lonely.

Considering that a dog’s nose is far more sensitive than a humans, they’re able to detect emotion through chemicals emitted in body odor.

Dogs use urination, defecation, and rolling on the ground to mark the territory with their scent. They can distinguish between the scents of different dogs and humans, as well.

Another 2017 study in Royal Society Open Science used different growls to indicate playfulness v.s. aggression. Slower, shorter growls paired with a lowered stance were viewed as more playful.

Of course, canine communication isn’t one-sided. Humans actively speak to dogs, whether it’s their own pup, a friend’s, or one they saw in passing while strolling down the street.

Without non-auditory cues, dogs were highly reactive to speech directed towards them and pitch played a role in how they behaved in response, according to a 2017 study in the Proceedings of Royal Society B.

Humans tend to speak to dogs like human babies, in a higher pitch with a higher level of harmony, regardless of whether they’re puppies or fully grown.

The study showed that puppies were more attentive to verbal cues when spoken to “like a baby,” whereas older dogs didn’t necessarily show a preference. However, dogs across the board are more attentive to dog-directed speech.

Dogs actively listen to humans, but we aren’t sure how much of the message they comprehend. So far, research shows that dogs do understand and recognize emotion as well as familiar commands.

PBS Video about how much dogs understand from humans

Source: Does My Dog Know What I’m Thinking? | It’s Okay To Be Smart

In Conclusion

Harper actively engages in a game of fetch

Source: Harper | Penelope Peru Photography

Dogs display social and emotional intelligence. While we can’t read their minds, we can use eye-tracking and fMRI analysis to monitor their brain activity during research.

Over the years, studies have shown that dogs can differentiate between emotional states and respond accordingly. Canine communication isn’t a one way street; they use body language, barking, growling, and odor to express themselves and they actively listen to humans.

In fact, research shows that dogs can be more attentive to particular human social interactions and they feel a strong connection to us through the release of oxytocin.

Humans don’t have to bark, growl, or urinate on the ground in order to communicate with dogs. The pitch of their voice and the expressions on their face are more than enough to signal, “Ri ruv rou, roo.”

Astro licking George Jetson

Source: Welcome Home Dog GIF | Boomerang Official

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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