Dog Thoughts

Do dogs have conscious thoughts? Do they reason things out?

From the time I brought home a 5 1/2 week old German Shepherd puppy in 1988, I've been studying dog behavior and how our canine friends think. I initially fell into the older, traditional styles of training: insist the dog do something, use punishment if necessary and make your best attempt to turn the dog into a robotic creature that responds to your commands with no thought on his part.

Since those days of old, I've changed considerably and so has my interaction with my dogs. What a wonderful thing it's been!

I encourage individual thoughts in my dogs. I teach them to make conscious choices now. I want them to explore behaviors and offer new ones by thinking about what I may want. It's a fascinating thing to watch.

Do dogs have conscious thought? Absolutely YES. Do dogs reason? Absolutely YES.

I've watched my dogs in their interactions together, and analyzed their interactions with me. While their thought processes are much more basic than ours are, so are their needs. Food, water, companionship and a warm place to live - and most dogs are very content. They don't need sex. They don't need a $20,000 vehicle. They don't need a TV and a DVD player and a computer (perish the thought that I go without my computer! *LOL*). They are pretty darn good at entertaining themselves with a stick or a ball or something they can tear apart. They don't need to have complex thought processes in order to deal with a typical dog life.

My style of training these days capitalizes on allowing a dog to think through behaviors. It's the very action of thinking that allows us to expand behaviors and to venture into new areas in a positive way. My dogs learn a myriad of "trick" behaviors - and nearly all are based on their offering me new behaviors while trying to get something from me (attention, treats, toys). I can almost hear them thinking "if I do THIS, will I get THAT?"

The Merriam-Webster definition of reason (as I'm using the term here) is: (1) the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways : INTELLIGENCE (2) : proper exercise of the mind.

I watch Trick, my older German Shepherd, and reason is proven on a daily basis. Take, for example, what she does when her ball rolls under the bed. She first tries to reach under with her muzzle, pushing as far as she can. She'll reach in with a paw at times. If those don't work, then she goes around the edge of the bed to the other side and looks under from there. She'll attempt the "rescue" from various angles and areas of the bed. When none of that works, she comes to me, puts her head on my lap and gazes into my eyes with that "I really need your help" look.

I see an act of reasoning in this. An animal without the ability to reason would not attempt to reach the ball from the other side of the bed. They would simply see that the ball went under at one point and that would be the area they would try to reach it from.

Another example would be during training. When I'm teaching retrieving, I use the dog's frustration and ability to think past the current behavior to further our level. I start with the dumbbell in my hand, and the dog sitting in front of me. I hold the dumbbell out slightly to one side and gaze at it. As soon as the dog glances at it, I give my reward word and follow it with a treat. I repeat the exercise, holding the dumbbell in different areas (left, right, up, down). The dog learns that looking at the dumbbell results in the reinforcement, and the behavior is quickly formed.

But we have to get past the glance, and this is where allowing the dog to think and react comes into play. Once the first behavior is established, I hold out the dumbbell and I don't give my reward word and reinforcement when the dog looks at it. I simply wait. Generally I will get another glance by the dog, and then his focus on my face in expectation of the reward. When I don't react to that, the dog nearly always escalates the behavior. He knows that there's SOME way to get that treat, and that it has to do with the dumbbell. So he makes a move towards the dumbbell. I immediately give my reward word and follow it with the treat.

We've then taken the step into thinking .. reasoning .. allowing the dog to realize that there is something that gets him the reward and he has to figure it out on his own with no help from me.

I love that my dogs are thinking creatures and that I encourage that in them.

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