Do dogs think?

Whenever your dog barks at you, looks at you a certain way or changes its behavior towards you, do you ever wonder what your dog may be thinking about? What’s going on in that fur ball’s head? Are they thinking about chasing squirrels? Fetching a ball? Or anticipating their next snack? Well according to many studies and scientists, a dog’s general cognitive abilities are equivalent to a 2-3 year old human toddler. That’s pretty impressive for any animal let alone a household pet.

How smart are we barkin? 

You might be thinking, okay, so now I know how smart my pup is, but how do they compare to other dogs? According to psychologist Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC, there are three factors that determine the intelligence of a dog. The combination of all three determines the full scope of intelligence that a dog can have. 

  • Instinctive intelligence

First and foremost is the dog breed and its instinctive intelligence. Certain dog breeds are much smarter than others inherently. For example, the Border Collie dog breed is the smartest dog in the world and can learn hundreds of words and commands in their lifetime. On the other hand, breeds such as bulldogs or beagles are considered low intelligence to the average dog. This is primarily because certain dogs breeds such as the collie have a superior ability to perform tasks it was bred to do.

  • Adaptive intelligence

This is the ability to problem solve things independently and learn from previous experiences. Does your dog need you to do everything for them or do they like to cause mischief and find ways to elude you? The latter type of dogs generally are more independent thinkers and thus require more training to get them to obey you. Another way a dog can distinguish itself from the rest of the pack is by learning on the fly. Dogs that learn from previous experiences quickly, tend to be smarter.

  • Working and obedience intelligence

This is probably the most common or visible aspect of a dog’s intelligence. This is the ability to learn things when being taught by their humans. Simple things such as catching and returning a frisbee or following generic sit, stand and stay commands, are examples of obedience intelligence. How quickly does your dog learn things taught by you?

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How do dogs learn?

Behavior is central to how a dog learns throughout its life. How you treat your dogs will play a large role in how your dog behaves. All dogs take their cues from their owner. They are essentially children in four legged form. As a result, it’s vital that you, as an owner, understand how your behavior affects your dog. 

Different methods such as positive or negative reinforcement can significantly impact how your dog learns or behaves around you. Associations and consequences are the foundation of dog learning. These two elements will help you and your dog connect with each other. 

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

Classical learning for your dog is learning by association. The most famous example of this would be Pavlov’s experiment when he eventually got his dogs to involuntarily salivate to the ring of a bell. Association training and learning helps dogs understand what is considered good behavior and what is bad behavior. If they experience a positive reaction after a certain event, then they will come to associate that event with positive and happy emotions. For example, if you walk up to your door and grab the leash every time you want to take your furry friend to the park, your pup will associate the leash positively, and in turn, interpret it as fun exercise time.

On the other hand, the opposite is also true. Negative events in a dog’s life can be inadvertently associated with normal day to day asks. One example of this would be taking your dog to your local vet. If the only time you bring your dog in the car is to take him or her to the vet, then your four legged friend will not like going in your car very much. The last thing you want is an anxious or panicky dog riding with you. 

Operant conditioning is learning by consequences. This type of learning is more voluntary, unlike its counterpart mentioned above. Dogs learn what is good and what is bad through this type of behavior training. For example, if you were trying to train your dog to sit, walk and stand, this type of conditioning would be the easiest way to obey a command. You would offer them a treat only when they listen to you and follow through on your task. Once they receive the positive stimuli, the pup will begin to learn that it’s human friend will reward them positively if I do this one thing for them. Overtime, that one command turns into several commands, which in turn encourages behavior training as well as tricks.

However, just like every other dog behavior training method, the conditioning process depends on a lot of factors including the type of dog, dog temperament, it’s relationship with the owner and the environment. In addition, different stimuli will have different effects on your dog. Some dogs may enjoy food more, while others require more mental stimulation to get their learning juices flowing. How well a dog learns depends on the timing of the stimuli and how often it is applied to the behavior.

In addition, you should take note not to cater or pamper your four legged family members. If your dog whines and pouts at the dinner table and you give it a piece of your dinner to satisfy it’s crying, you will have taught your dog that begging for things will be rewarding. As a result, it will try to repeat the same behavior more often because that’s what you inadvertently taught them how to behave. You should always be selective with your training. There is a time and place for everything. 

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How do dogs relate to us?

Dogs are essentially kids. They demand a lot of attention, have to be fed, bathed as well as shown lots of love and support. Just like a human child, every dog is different. Certain training methods and behavior learning may not work as well with one dog as it does with others. But that doesn’t mean that the dog is disobedient or dumb, it means you need to find a better method. Always try to listen and watch to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. Their behavior will let you know how they’re feeling about a certain activity. If you’re trying to train your dog, use trial and error techniques and find out what variables work best for your dog’s temperament as well as your own. 

Dogs and humans have held a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. We bred them from wolves to be man’s best friend after all. It’s in their DNA to please us and work with us. As a dog owner, you have to show that same level of commitment. Your pup doesn’t care about what you look like, where you come from or how much money you make. It just knows you as it’s guardian and best friend. They will always try to please you. Be the type of person that your dog thinks you are when it greets you everyday at the front door. 

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