What Do Dogs Think About?

Sometimes we feel like we could stare into our dog's adorable eyes forever.

But sometimes, when we're snuggling with our number one pup, we wonder what exactly goes on behind those eyes. What kinds of thoughts or feelings are going on in their head. We pulled together some of the latest research to find out what exactly our dogs are thinking about.

First, do dogs think at all?

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Dr. Jill Sackman, senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Michigan, was emphatic in her response. "Oh my gosh yes! They probably have the level of cognition of a 3 to 5-year-old human," she said. And that's pretty good. By that age, human toddlers have definitely started to understand the world around them. That means there's quite a bit going on in our dogs' heads, and it's pretty fascinating. In fact, scientists have been studying dog brains to understand better how they think and why. Using state of the art imaging technology, scientists have been looking at what's going on in our canines' craniums.

Here's what they've found.

Thinking about their owners makes dogs happy.

While imaging a dog's brain, scientists let dogs smell the aroma of their owners, and it activated the "reward center" of their brains. So just the smell of their humans makes dogs giddy. Our dogs also think a lot about how we're feeling. In fact, their brains are in tune to the inflections of emotion in our voice in a similar way to humans. Their brains are constantly in tune to their humans, which explains why they're so good at comforting us.

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Dogs love us at least as much as food.

A study by Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, tested whether dogs love food or praise more. Dogs were offered a hot dog, and then on a separate occasion, they were offered praise. Dr. Berns and his team measured the brain's response to these two things in the reward center of the brain, and what they discovered was extraordinary.

The majority of the dogs responded to both options equally, so they love both about the same. About 20 percent of the dogs actually responded more positively to the praise than they did to the food. Dr. Berns explained, "From that, we conclude that the vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food."

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Dogs' brains are hardwired to process faces.

We've always been surprised when we spend time away from a family member or friend's dog, and yet when we see them again, the recognition is instant. Now, some of that may be due to our pups' abilities to detect the most subtle smells, but that isn't the whole story.

Dr. Berns and his team showed dogs objects and faces, and he found that dogs' brains seem to process faces naturally, as if they were designed to do it. That means that along with other distinctive qualities your dog might remember about you, it can also easily recognize your face.

Your dog does have emotions, but she probably doesn't feel guilt.

There is little doubt that our dogs do feel emotions, and strong emotions at that, but their emotional range is more limited than ours. Dogs feel the simple emotions like joy, pain, fear, anger, excitement, contentment, and love. However, they probably don't feel the more complex that require conscious thought, like guilt, shame, or pride.

However, many dog owners swear that they've seen their dog make a "guilty face" when doing something bad. However, guilt requires them to understand right and wrong, choose to do something wrong, but then feel bad about it afterwards. Instead, by testing dogs who have actually misbehaved next to dogs who just look like they misbehaved, scientists found that dogs cower in "guilt" either way.

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So they concluded that our dogs probably don't feel guilty, they have just learned to fear punishment in certain situations. That's why most modern training methods don't advocate punishment, because it's hard for dogs to connect punishment to their actions after the fact. Instead, they just connect punishment to their surroundings at the time.

Dogs can be altruistic.

Scientists ran an experiment to see if dogs would be nice to another dog if there was no reward in it for them. The team put two dogs in cages, one with a lever that dispensed food into the other dog's cage. If the dogs knew one another, the dog's brain showed it was happy to give its friend a treat. However, if the dogs don't know each other, they were less likely to happily dispense a treat.

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Dogs have willpower, but it breaks down over time.

As humans we know that our willpower has limits. For instance, if we're trying to eat healthy, it's easy s long as tempting food isn't around. But set us near a cake (or other tempting food), the more we're around it, the harder it is to resist.

Scientists tested this brain function in dogs as well. Dogs in one group were asked to sit and stay for 10 minutes, while others were allowed to do whatever they want for 10 minutes. After the time, both groups were asked to do a puzzle game. The dogs who had to sit and stay, which taxed their willpower, were not as good at completing the next task that involved willpower. Just another reason our dogs are just like us.

Knowing how fascinating our dogs' minds are just makes them feel even more like part of the family.

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Although we may never understand the whole sniffing each other's butts thing.