A lot of people, especially dog owners, have this question in the back of their minds. How is it that a dog seems to be able to know how to do things, express what they need, learn commands, etc. They even seem to display emotions and so it seems to people interacting with them that they must have some sort of thought process to do what they do. How else would they know that if you throw the ball, they are supposed to go get it and bring it back?
However, is this truly a thought process that they have or is it more instinctual?
We do know that they are able to learn words and associate those words with an action. However, do they think about the words or commands that they were given and decide how they will go about it? Do they go through the process of, “I heard them say sit, I need to stop what I am doing and sit down and wait,” or do they, from repetition of training, just do it because the word becomes instinctual to them when they hear it?
A lot of people have a hard time going past their own thought processes and grasp the fact that animals run be instinct not thoughts. Basically, how we see them is like they are more similar to humans than they are. We give see them as having the ability to reason or feel emotions beyond the basics (for example a person may wonder if a dog can feel sad because a person called them weird). Yes, animals do feel, they feel pain, they feel loss (like if their owner passes away or they get re-homed), sad/depressed (we’ve all seen at least pictures of dogs or animals with their heads down in the corner), and of course happy (yes, they smile). So, seeing these emotions displayed it is easy to see why people assume they must have some sort of higher thinking capabilities.
Are some dogs smarter than others? Yes, some dogs are more easily trained than others and have a higher capacity to learn more commands. If you think about police dogs, as puppies they go through extensive training to see if they have the ability to actually go into full police dog training. Not every puppy that is bred by the same set of parents in the same litter are able to be training. Some just have the right personality and instincts to be able to handle more extensive training. However, do those dogs have the ability to think? No, they are still not able to read a situation that they are brought into to know what they are supposed to do. Their human partner gives them a command and then they follow through with what they have been training to do with that command. They do not sit there and weigh the possibility that they could be injured in this situation or contemplate how the suspect may react to them charging after them, they hear a command and they react. It is learned behavior. When you think about how they give you big puppy dog eyes, how do most people react to that – they give the dog attention. They learned that they just have to give a certain look and there is a reward with it.
It may seem that some dogs may sit there and decide if they want to listen to you or not when you give a command, but that is more than likely to do with the training that they received. Any animal if given the chance will resist their owner to commands if they are allowed to do so. If you watch someone who has a dog that listens instantly to commands given vs a dog who may need several attempts by the owner to get the dog to listen, you can see that dogs are capable instant action to commands.
I know that a lot of people watch Cesar Millan’s show or at least heard about him. He can take dogs who seem to be untrainable and train them. Why? Because he has learned dog behavior and how to tap through their natural instincts. He has amazing resources for dog owners to help train owners how to train their dogs.
These are just 4 of the resources that you can find if you are having difficulties with your dog.
How does training ones dog correlate with whether they think or not? It shows us that dogs learn through training, through repetition not through a thought process. They learn behaviors, whether good or bad, because of what happens when they do it. If you want a dog to learn how to sit, for example, you say the word, push their back-end down (gently), and give them a reward. After repeating this several times a day for a few days, they learn that the word sit means to put their bums down and it is good. Even if they whine are circling you when you have food, if you give them a piece, they learn that if they circle you when you have food, they get something good. It is a learned behavior.
If a dog has received a negative consequence for something they did, they learn to associate that action or word, like bad or no, with something negative. So, yes, when they go to do that again, they will remember that there was a negative consequence tied to it and will most likely stop. This is key to remember if you rescue a dog from a shelter. If they are very timid or scared with sudden movements etc, chances are they had a lot of negative consequences. They may even associate you wanting to pet them with something bad. However, with time, effort, and repetition their instincts of fight, flight or freeze will diminish, and you will have a new dog. You can start with having a treat in your hand and wait for them to come take it. Slowly, they will come to you even if you do not have a treat. From there you can help your dog become comfortable with you petting them.
So, yes, it does seem that dogs have a sense of thought, but in reality, it is learned behavior from repetition. If you are not consistent with the training they receive, they will get confused and will not learn. If you teach them not to go on the furniture, but then once in awhile let them, they will not actually know when they are allowed to be on the furniture and when they are not. So, if you are not wanting them on the furniture at that moment, yet they jump on it, it may seem that they are choosing to be annoying, however, they are doing what they have been taught in the end, that it is ok to be on the furniture. This is why people consider dogs to be able to think, it seems that they are choosing to go on the furniture when you think that they know they are not allowed to. However, if they have had mixed messages, they do not actually know that they are not allowed up. They can’t read the circumstances and know when they are allowed and when they are not. It will be much easier for both of you to pick with one rule and stick to it because once you bend the rules, they will not know which rule to follow.
A good tip to know when you are training your dogs what action they should do with what word, be sure to say it once. If you repeat the word over and over, they will not know that you are most likely getting frustrated with them. For example, the command sit, say the word once, help them with the action, give them a treat. If they do not listen the first time once you have been training for a few days, there needs to be a negative consequence, or they will continue to not listen the first time. Why? Because you have trained them that they have to hear the word several times before doing the action or that your tone must be harsh to listen. When they have graduated to listening to the word sit without a treat, be sure to let them do the action with still only saying it once, as soon as you start saying it more than once they will retrain to only listen when you become frustrated.