21 February

Do Dogs Think? Living With Alien Minds

by Jon Katz

If you ask any dog owner if dogs think, 100 per cent of them  will say yes.

I would agree.

Of course dogs think, living things – even fish – wouldn’t survive many minutes on this earth if they didn’t think. But beyond that conventional belief, there is not much common agreement or understanding on how they think or what they think.

I’ve been writing about dogs for many years now, and I am honestly appalled at all the junk online about what is going on in the minds of dogs. In our rush to love and emotionalize them, we are turning them into mystics, energy-senders, the angels and cherubs of the animal world, supernatural spirits who float through time and live forever.

It’s not for me to say all of those things aren’t true, how could I know. But in this world of fluid truth, I like to stick to what I like to call facts.

I’m planning to explore this subject here on my blog and also every week for a while on my radio show (Wednesdays, one to three p.m., WBTMAM1370).

People tell me all the time how their dogs mourn and grieve, although I have never witnessed it.

They tell me all the time how their dogs were obviously abused, even though their dogs can’t tell them.

They tell me how unhappy their dogs are to be left alone, how jealous their dogs will be if they pet my dogs (they don’t know that envy is not a dog trait, but a very human one.) They tell me how their dogs have so much anxiety when they have to go to work that they must medicate them with antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills.

I have never in my life had a dog who suffered from separation anxiety.

I wonder if this is might be because I don’t believe in it. More than 300,000 dogs in America are now on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. For many thousands of years, dogs didn’t need anti-depressants. Why now?

I think it’s more likely that the reason is that we are dumping all of our shit onto them  because they can’t protest or complain. I am always drawn to the idea dogs as partners  until I realize that they are totally dependent on us for every single thing they need to survive.

That doesn’t sound like an equal relationship to me.

On my radio show “Talking To Animals” I’ve launched what I hope will be a continuing discussion  about dog dreams and dog consciousness. I will be upfront about where I am coming from. I believe in science and I believe in listening to people who do their research and have a certain accountability about their findings before they make sweeping and all-encompassing statements about the truth about dogs.

It’s a free country, people can say  and think what they want, but I like to back up my statements with whatever facts I can muster. I think the people listening or calling deserve no less.

All of us hope that we can learn what our dogs know and what they think.

People are always telling me what their dogs think, even when it is apparent that they couldn’t possibly know what their dogs think. There is something about dog love that brings out fanaticism and absolutism in some people, and a good deal of emotionalizing. The Boomers are passing into history but their attitudes about children are spreading out into the animal world.

We get the dogs we need.

The major obstacle we face, of course, is that we are human and they are not. We can only think and reason and feel like a human does. The experience of animals is totally different from ours, it is alien to us, and in many ways, unfathomable.

They can’t know how we think, and we can’t know how they think.

We have no reliable reference points that allow us much certainty behind the behavior of dogs. We can only guess and reason in human words and feelings, because that’s all we have to reason with. I can’t tell you what my dog is thinking any more than I can tell you what those bats are thinking as they fly through my attic.

Within those boundaries, there is a lot of communicating, at least for me. The epidemic emotionalizing of dogs is not good for them, or, I think, for us. Sorting out the truth takes time and thought, and yes, even some research.

I believe the key to learning is accepting what I can’t know and don’t know.  In the animal world, the rarest words ever spoken are “I don’t know.” It goes through my head all of the time.

Having said that, there are some things that the most knowledgeable among us believe we can say and do know about how the minds of dogs work.

There are all kinds of ideas about the minds of dogs and about their consciousness. But certain scientific facts  – yes, I do believe in science much more than I believe in the opinions on social media – can be and are agreed upon when it comes to the thinking of dogs, writes  author Stanley Coren a psychologist and author (How Dogs Think).

Coren is my favorite and most trusted thinker on the subject.

What follows is his list and my list combined about what those largely agreed to facts are:

  1. Dogs sense the world and take information from it.
  2. Dogs learn and adjust their behavior.
  3. Dogs have memories and the ability to problem solve.
  4. Early experiences with their mothers or in the litter shapes the behavior of the adult dog.
  5. Dogs have emotions, they just don’t have all of our emotions.
  6. Individual dogs have distinct personalities, different breeds have different temperaments and psychologies.
  7. Social interactions like play and life with humans are very important to dogs.
  8. Dogs do communicate with one another and with humans, they talk and they learn and they listen.

When I think about what dogs think, I try to separate what I want and need them to think and what they might be thinking. Dogs have simpler brains than we do, and they lead simpler lives. I’m not sure how much thinking dogs really need to do to get food and shelter and some activity. Darwin believed that intelligence and consciousness are evolutionary, they evolve with need.

And I do notice that with each passing year, fragmented and disconnected humans really need dogs to have a very wide range of human-like emotions, and all kinds of deep thought. The line between our ideas about dogs and are ideas about children are converging rapidly. Just listen.

The best and most compelling research I’ve read suggests that dogs have movies of the mind in their heads, they are believed by biologists to think much like autistic children, through a series of movies that reflect their lives and genetic history. Remember, they don’t have words, so they could not possibly comprehend ideas like death or wealth or love in the ways that  we do.

People often tell me that their dogs love them  unconditionally.

But try starving them or beating them or screaming at them all day, you might find that love is quite conditional. Even though we often like to see it as more complicated, dogs love the people who feed and care for them. And when if they need to move as millions of dogs do each year, they love the next people who feed and care for them just about as much, give or take.

This is not a cynical view of dogs, this is why I love them. Because they are not like us. It helps me to think about what dogs almost surely don’t think about.

Do they perceive a wider world beyond their lives? Do they see life in the same way we do? What can we sense that they can’t, and what can they sense that we can’t? Are there memories shorter or longer than ours?

What role does intellect play in their lives, and does their intellect decline as ours does? Can dogs understand time and beauty? How can we better comprehend the many ways dogs get us to love them and care for them and spend enormous amounts of money on them, when we are busily driving most animal species off of the planet as quickly and thoroughly as our greedy leaders can? Is temperament the same thing as personality in dogs, or is it different?

One biologist said he believes dogs are really just simple but efficient computers with fur. Their natural lives, he says,  revolve around food, a place to sleep, shelter from the rain and sex. If they can’t have natural lives, then people will do.

So there is much to think about and much to talk about if we can open ourselves up and acknowledge how little we really do know about their minds.

I’ll be writing about this very good subject here on the blog and on Talking To Animals, Wednesday, one to three p.m. Let me know what you think: 801 442-1010 or 866 406-9286. It’s your show. Come on by. You can also e-mail me your question and comments any time: jon@bedlamfarm.com.


  1. Jon….Very interesting article and very thought provoking. However, we all have opinions about dogs intellect, etc. mostly based on our personal experience with them. I would love to call into your radio show but am afraid I may use too much time on your show with my experiences of having dogs all of my life. Some of the things you have said in this article I certainly agree with however, some ideas, based on my experience I don’t agree with. I do not think the scientists really know how intelligent canines are. I don’t think any of us know for sure nor will we ever know. However, some of my experiences with dogs tells me that they do have reasoning capability to some degree. Hopefully, one day I can call into your show and we can talk about some of these things…..

  2. I’ve never believed in separation anxiety, at least not in the way most people view it (my dog loves me so much he can’t let me out of his sight). If a dog is trained right from the start that their human comes and goes on a regular basis, and if the environment the dog is in when alone is comfortable and safe, they get used to it. I’m sure most dogs would prefer to come along (mine certainly does), but when they can’t, they accept it and have a nap.

    I think that a dog’s thought processes are different from ours, but they’re definitely thinking. Their senses of smell and hearing give them the information they need to understand what humans are feeling. My dog reacts very strongly when I’m upset and cry. She sits or lays near me and stares at my face. That usually makes me smile and pet her, which makes me feel better. In that fashion, she’s a therapy dog, at least for me. However, if I cry on a happy occasion, she gets excited and prances around as if she’s trying to join in the fun. Both situations involve words and tears, but her response is different with each one. I can only think that humans must emit a certain scent when they’re upset and a different scent when they’re happy. It isn’t the tears that elicit the response, it’s the scent and probably the tone of voice, even though they don’t understand the words.

  3. When you wrote about dogs loving the people who feed and care for them, I immediately thought of that picture of you and Red. You were leaning in toward him and he is pressing into you with an expression on his face that I think could only say love. We can have quite deep connections with our dogs, especially if we are aware of their many facial expressions and body language, and take time to communicate and connect. When my border collie is hungry and comes to me asking for food, that’s a very specific look in her eyes and face. And if she thinks I’m stopping the frisbee game too quickly, and I ask her to come, she will sit and look at me with eyes that are slightly flattened across the top, and I know she’s not ready to stop yet ( it feels like annoyance and mild defiance to me). Sometimes I catch her gazing softly at me, and she comes over and presses her forehead between my knees and just stays like that for a bit. Other times she’ll come and lick me on the nose, and often come just for a hug. These are some of the many intimate things that foster some of those anthropomorphic tendencies I have toward her. Hard to avoid!

  4. A pretty astute analysis from where I sit.
    I’m legally blind, and have in my life a very accomplished yellow lab guide. He answers yes or no questions, counts to six, does small sums, negotiates his pay, knows the names and distinguishing characteristics of his stuffed animals (how do we know it’s an elephant? What do elephants have? He touches the trunk, for example) and is able to memorize a shopping list of six items in one go, and lead me to those items in order once we get to the store. He remembers people and places, finds an office he has only been to once before, just by my asking him to take me to the person or by describing what we do there. He knows street names he memorized by hearing crosswalk enunciators. He recognizes stores by familiar exteriors, finding Home Depot or cvs in a new city, based on having been to a different one, and will lead me to things he has to find inside such as “look for tables and chairs like we have in the kitchen” or “see if you can find rugs. They sell rugs. Where are the rugs?”, all in novel stores. He has clear opinions about people. Most he likes, but if asked, isn’t keen to see those he doesn’t (in one case because that person yelled at me months before), recognizes his puppy raiser or dog school trainer in a group photo, pointing to the person on request, etc.
    he understands tomorrow or in a little while, and if asked, has opinions about music he likes. “Is that good music?” either gets a Boop on my nose or hand for yes, or side eye for oh hell no.
    Are there parallels to a three or four year old kid? Sure. But I’d sooner trust him to remember six grocery items and find them half an hour later than many adult humans. Then he will do something like pee on his foot, reminding me that for all of it, he is a dog.

  5. You wrote, “I am always drawn to the idea dogs as partners until I realize that they are totally dependent on us for every single thing they need to survive. That doesn’t sound like an equal relationship to me.”

    That’s exactly the reason I feel lucky to have lived with herding dogs for nearly 40 years. I think that’s what you enjoy about your border collies, as well.

    My dogs have been dependent on me for many of the things they need for survival, though the AussieX’s were pretty good at catching their own fresh meat (rabbit, mostly) but yeah! They’d never make it out of the grocery store on their own.

    BUT!!! I’m totally deaf without my cochlear implants. You can literally shoot a gun behind my back and even if I feel the impact, I won’t hear a sound. My dogs have all tuned into the fact, rather quickly, that once I turn the light off at night, they’re in charge of getting back-up by letting me know there’s something that needs my attention. They also figure out that there are times during the day when I’m not aware of whatever, and again get my attention to react to the situation. I can sleep feeling safe at night because the dogs are doing their part of our contract. I do stuff they need but can’t do on their own. They do stuff that I need but can’t do on my own. How is this not a fair and equal contract?

    By the way, these are NOT “service dogs”. All have come from one or another no-kill shelter, and dog and I take it from there.

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