9 December

What Animals Think. The Discussion Is Underway

by Jon Katz

I can’t wait to read what you write about this, Jon. My first exposure to you was your book about Orson. I’ve been a fan ever since. I get grind-y when I hear people anthropomorphize any animal. It’s a disservice to the animal, but I get why they do it. People crave connection – and when they don’t have it with people, they need it from their animals. That’s not to say we cannot be connected to animals; we certainly can. That connection is real. I want the kind of connection that doesn’t demand them to be anything but what they are. This is how we mess up human connection; by demanding others to be something so, WE can feel better. That’s true selfishness.” – Karla Kruger

So, the discussion is underway, and I’m excited about it. In the past half-century, the very idea of what a dog is has changed radically. For thousands of years, dogs hovered in the background of our lives, helping protect us, find food, keep our children company.

All that has changed. Dogs have moved into the very epicenter of our lives; they are surrogate children, family members, objects of rescue, and pity, best friends, fur babies,  emotional support systems. Their new work isn’t guarding us or helping us find food; it provides emotional support to us. They sleep in a bed, eat expensive foods, get expensive medical care are a $39 billion industry in America alone.

As they draw closer to us and our emotional lives, we project more human traits onto them. We emotionalize and romanticize them, see them as mystics and spiritual creatures, intimate friends, ask them to help manage our emotional difficulties, and keep us company in a distract, stressful and confusing world.

This is what priests and ministers and rabbis used to do; more and more, we turn to dogs for the emotional support we need. The stress we feel in modern lives causes us to value our dogs and see them as a source of unconditional and unwavering love and loyalty.

All well and good, but there is no unconditional love in the animal world. They love us for offering them food and water and shelter and attention.  They don’t love us because we are wonderful people.

In our intense world, dog love pushes a lot of people over the top. They are a blank canvas since they can’t speak. We can put anything we want into their heads, and no one can tell us we are wrong. ( I will.)

Our love of animals sometimes far outstrips our knowledge about them, and many dog lovers project onto them all of the things humans think and feel. It supports the idea that they are just like us and are underestimated.

Because we have language and dogs don’t have a verbal spoken language, we tend to see them thinking in our language. They don’t. Anyone who tells you what their dog is thinking is projecting.

No animal researcher ever got a grant for deciding that animals are simple and not very bright. There are already new studies claiming they are smarter than we are.

Maybe so, but not in human measuring terms. Dogs are brilliant at doing what dogs do – co-opt and manipulate humans, smell things, hear things, carry out tasks, jump through hoops, herd sheep,  see things we can’t see or smell or hear, run far and fast, give us what we need.

As technology, religion, and politics fail to guide and comfort us, we turn to dogs more and more to ground and calm and love us.

For years now, as people attribute more and more intelligence and emotional complexity to our dogs, we wonder and debate whether or not dogs think, and if so, what are they thinking? How smart are they, and what are they feeling?

I love this subject and have been researching it and writing about it for years. I see this as a discussion, open and hopefully useful and tolerant of different ideas.

My favorite authority is the animal scholar and psychologist Frans DeWAAL, a professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia.

He is also the author of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? and Mama’s Last Hug, perhaps my favorite book on the subject of animal intelligence.

We tend to like the experts who agree with us, and there is little space between what De WAAL thinks about the intelligence of animals like dogs and what I think.

DeWAAL has enormous respect for animals’ intelligence and depth, but he is also honest enough to admit what we don’t know yet.

For me, the question is not whether animals have emotions or are intelligent in their own way. I wonder, like de WAAL, how science has overlooked the subject for so long.

Why fight about something so obvious? Of course, they can think; they have emotions.

The confusion comes from the fact that we associate and confuse emotions with feelings and instincts, a complicated topic with dog and animal lovers.

The truth is there is no consensus about this, no simple and clear answers. We are just beginning to grope our way through this subject.

We talk about our own emotions; we can usually express them in words and communicate that to other people. They can see our emotions in our facial expressions. When we say we are “happy,” people can look at us and see if that’s true or not.

Dogs are different, they show anger and fear, but the idea that they experience emotions the way we do makes scientists and biologists, and good trainers (and me) uneasy.

Partly, this is because animals never report any feelings. Beyond that, the existence of our kind of feelings presupposes a level of consciousness that few scientists are willing to grant animals, even though we sometimes see the same facial expressions on dogs that we see on people.

So, where does this take us.? Feelings in animals are believed to come from much deeper inside the brain than neuroscientists have believed. Some are coming to think that feelings, instead of being a by-product of the brain, are essential emotions themselves.

For now, this is all speculation. Feelings are clearly less accessible to scientists – and us – than emotions.

“For the moment,” says DeWAAL, “We have to content ourselves with what is visible on the outside.”

This means we only know about dogs’ thinking from what we can see, not from what we assume or project. DeWAAL believes that science of animal emotions will be the next frontier in the study of animal behavior.

Our lack of understanding of animal emotions is the real problem in figuring out what dogs are thinking. Emotions infuse everything with meaning and, says DeWAAl; they are the main inspiration of cognition in our lives and theirs.

Until then, we struggle to truly grasp the degree to which all animals are driven by them.

Emotions are the primary way in which humans have deepened their attachment to dogs. Every year, we get more and more emotional about them. Our world is a cold and uncertain place; dog love is solid as a rock.

Perhaps dogs love us so much because they don’t think about it; they just do it to survive, and as an instinct, not a choice. Dogs don’t really have to do a ton of thinking to live with us: we feed them, walk them, shelter them, and them to doctors when they are sick.

It is quite common to hear people say they mourned their dogs more than their parents’ death, or they love their dogs as much or more as spouses, and as much as they love their children.

When we try to figure out our dogs, quite often, the best we can do is guess. Neuroscientists can’t be sure, and they’ve been studying the question for years and years.

I begin this conversation with humility. I don’t know what my dogs are feeling; I do know what they are doing. And I know what they respond to. I know they think, and I know they feel things.

My rule about dog cognition simple.

I don’t know what I can’t see, I can’t know what is inside and invisible, and they can’t tell me. Sometimes I learn the most by accepting what I don’t know at all.

In her message to me at the top of this post, Karla Kruger gets to the heart of this. It’s hard to separate what we need them to be from what they are. And it’s hard to separate selfishness from truth and science.

I’ve learned to ask this question when it comes to what my dogs are thinking? What, exactly, is it that I need to know?


  1. Having a dog is one thing, Jon, being one with a dog doesn’t happen all that often. I have had dogs all my life and there have been only three, who have touched my heart in such a way as I feel they are a part of me. All three were and are Australian Shepherds. Ceilidh, the first one who won my heart was a pretty black tri girl but as fey as they come. She’d wander off and wonder why she got to where she was and not know how to get back home. She smelled flowers and chased butterflies. Her sister, Hope, stood in her sister’s shadow, but it is Hope who, when she died, stayed in my heart with her quiet, gentle kindness to all. And now Miss Meggy, a red tri, my present girl, she knows words like ‘bath’ which she had yesterday at the groomers, she runs away when the word bath is mentioned and she watches commercials on television to the point where she can tell the ones who have dogs in them by their music if she is out of the room. I don’t place my needs onto her, rather I do tell her, she is me, I am her, we are one. She is my shadow and great comfort to me being so. But she is a dog, I am her human. She depends on me for her wellbeing. I depend on her for her companionship. Have I ever been able to make sense of the word ‘heartdog’? not really, but I do believe I’ve been lucky enough to have shared my life with three of them along with other dogs whom I have enjoyed owning. If you can put any sense to this, I would say my dogs are my life, now, at my age (83) and I hope I live long enough to see them into old age. I don’t believe in projecting my needs onto my dog but I guess, if we are one, we will share things together. I’ll read this topic with interest.
    Sandy Proudfoot.

  2. Thank you for this conversation. I grew up with Disney animals so it took me a long time to accept and understand truth and science.

  3. Wish I could cite the particular study but I was fascinated by the dogs they trained to submit to an MRI while not sedated. It was done to show that the same areas of a dogs brain were stimulated by the same things humansbrains are. I believe it was dealing with emotions. It was a fascinating discussion on dog cognition.

  4. Just ordered Frans DeWaal’s book “Mama’s Last Hug” from Amazon on your recommendation. I am a great fan of yours and respect and concur on your feelings about dogs. Have read all your books. Looking forward to reading further.

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