How Do Dogs Think? The Scientific Revolution in Dog Intelligence

Dog in front of computerWhen I first started to study dogs from a scientific perspective, finding research on canine behavior was a long and difficult task. It wasn’t just because at the time we didn’t have Internet and most of the publications had to be found on microfilm and other laborious methods, no, the main obstacle was the downright scarcity of scientific interest on the subject. It was much easier to find research on wild canids like wolves or coyotes, than it was on dogs. Dogs were considered a man-made species with very little scientific value. Over the past 20 years however, the interest in our companion pooches has dramatically changed. Dogs are intelligent creatures and more than any other, they can be active participants  in any research protocols as their capacity to cooperate with us far surpasses that of any other animal. Between their remarkable ability to read our emotions and our gestures, their capacity to recognize us even from a picture, and understand concepts that we thought were out of their reach, we’re finally able to recognize that dogs are a very unique species that we know too little about. Dog behavior and cognition research labs have multiplied around the world and have contributed in helping us better understand how dogs think and how to better relate to our canine partners. How dogs think and the study of dog intelligence has become a serious focus of research. For those of you interested in following some of the latest work on the subject, here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the main research centers.

In the US:

Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in NY:

Under the management of Professor Horowitz and Ms. Hecht, the team focuses on the study of the dog’s behavior and cognition. Some of their contribution has been to show that despite our interpretation of the dog’s behavior, dogs do not feel guilt but mostly respond to our reaction. The team also explored the dog’s sense of fairness as well as their olfactory capabilities.

Duke Canine Cognition Center in NC:

In the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, under the direction of Dr. Hare (Dognition) and Dr. MacLean, the scientists focus on dog psychology, and more specifically on understanding dog cognition.

University of Florida Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab In FL:

Professor Wynne and his team investigate subjects ranging from identifying the factors that influence adoption rates in shelters, to quantifying the value of praise and petting as a reinforcer for dogs or what influences the dog’s detection training.

The Dog Behavior Project at Eckerd College in FL:

Mastiff sleeping on booksDr. Highfill and her team are dedicated to understanding personality, cognition and environmental enrichment in animals and dogs in particular.

 The Comparative Cognition Laboratory at the University of Kentucky:

Dr. Zentall and his team study cognitive behaviors in animals including memory strategies, concept learning and social learning. Do dogs have object permanence, in other words, do dogs still know that an object exists, even when it is out of sight? Can dogs learn to perform a task by watching another dog perform the task? These are a few of the questions that this team is hoping to answer.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center in PA:

Under the direction of Dr. Otto, this team specializes in the field of working dogs. From search and rescue to medical alert dogs they focus on increasing performances and enhancing the bond between people and their dog. Amongst other areas of research, they investigate ways to help working dogs stay hydrated and strive to understand the impact of certain rescue missions on the dog’s health and behavior. They also specialize in research on the dog’s ability to detect ovarian cancer or diabetes.

The Canine Cognition Center at Yale in CT:

Dr. Santos and her team explore what dogs know about their social and physical world. Through different games, they explore our canines ability to problem solve and understand their environment. Do dogs understand our intentions and goals? Can they distinguish between different types of objects? Do they understand numbers? Are just a few of the subjects this group is looking into.

The National Canine Research Council (NCRC) in NY:

Under the direction of Ms. Delise, the NCRC’s main purpose is to provide accurate and validated information about the human-canine bond. They look into all aspects of our relationships with our dogs. Some of their latest research included looking into our most common attitudes towards dogs, canine aggression, dog bites and public policy.

Bergin University of Canine Studies in CA:

Dr Bergin and her group are specialized in service dogs and focus on advancing the human-canine partnership. Showing that dogs are capable of conceptualizing, they look into their ability to recognize abstract symbols, even to the point of recognizing written words. Researching dogs’ personality types, they also investigate the significance of the dogs facial expression, body dynamics and tail carriage. One of their goals is to optimize the matching process when placing service dogs.

Auburn University in AL:

Dr. Floyd, Dr. Angle and Dr. Waggoner lead the research team specialized in detection dog research and development. From exercise physiology, olfaction, training, conditioning, they constantly strive to improve the performance of detection dogs.

The Center for Shelter Dogs in MA:

Chihuahua on pile of booksUnder the direction of Dr. Marder, this team strives to scientifically validate behavior assessments and behavior modification protocols. Their goal is to increase the chances of successful adoptions for shelter dogs. How can we better evaluate canine personality? How can we reduce stress factors on shelter dogs? What are the characteristics in dogs that make them better candidates for adoption? These are some of the questions this group is trying to answer.

Center for the Human-Animal Bond, Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in IN:

Dr. Beck and his team look into the animal-human relationship. From decreased blood pressure to reduced anxiety, animals offer a variety of benefits to those in their presence. Committed to a better understanding of our relationship to animals this group looks into all aspects of human-animal interaction and welfare.

Emory University in GA:

Probably too new to qualify for an actual dog research lab, Dr Berns and his research team still have their place on this list. They are leading the way in our understanding of our dog’s brain through innovative experiments involving the training of dogs to stand still in an MRI.

Around the world:

The University of Lincoln in the UK:

Directed by Prof. Mills, this Clinic has been very active in researching the factors that lead our dogs to bite and look into all aspects of dog cognition and psychology. They were also involved in a very extensive study on shock collars.

The University of Bristol in the UK:

This group studies animal welfare and behavior in farm, laboratory, companion and working animals. Their areas of focus include cognition, emotion, animal welfare and behavior.

Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany:

The Max Plank Institute has been one of the first research centers interested in canine cognition. Interested in the evolution of cognitive abilities, the dog has been a prime subject of interest for its long history with mankind. This group has contributed some of the most advanced research on how dogs communicate with us. They were the first to show their ability to understand pointing gestures. Can dog learn from others whether dogs or humans? What do dogs know about themselves? What do they know about physical relations? Are dogs capable of cooperation with other dogs and with other species? These are just a few of the questions the Max Plank Institute is currently investigating.

The Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna in Austria:

This group looks into the dog’s ability to problem solve, learn, perceive their environment and relate to humans.

The Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary:

Led by Professor Csány, Dr. Dóka, Dr. Miklósi and Dr. Topál, this research group is dedicated to identifying the evolutionary and ethological foundations of the dog canine-human relationship. Their area of research includes acoustic communication, attachment and social relationships, personality, social cognition, physical cognition, social learning, wolf-dog comparison, etc…

The Department of Functional Morphology and Biomechanics of the Zoological Institute at the Christian-Albrecht Universtity of Kiel in Germany:

Dr Feddersen-Petersen has been a leading authority in the field of research on dog behavior. Unfortunately her work being mostly published in German, she hasn’t gained the popularity that others have despite her important contribution to today’s knowledge of social behavior in dogs.


As I have mentioned before, there are certainly more dog behavior research centers that I don’t know of. If you come across any new one, please share with us. We would love to keep track of their work. From ethologists, anthropologists, veterinarians, psychologists and neuroscientists. With this many top researchers invested in enhancing our understanding of dog behavior and cognition, the next few years should be enlightening!!

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.

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Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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3 comments on “How Do Dogs Think? The Scientific Revolution in Dog Intelligence
  1. Jenny H says:

    I love reading about animal intelligence and how their minds work.

    But, I have one big reservation about Brian Hare’s assertions about dogs ‘understanding human pointing’.
    Not one of my many dogs has ever understood this without actually having been specifically taught. And some took much longer to understand it than others.
    The dogs I’ve had since the 1980s have been trained to understand hand signals and do follow hand signal direction for Agility. But pointing no. It just simply doesn’t come naturally to them, and I’ve nver bothered to ‘teach’ it.

    So I think that Brian Hare, comparing pet dogs’ who have lived in a home with their owners with Bonobos and Wolves who have lived in ‘captivity’ in open acres is not a fair comparison at all!

    Dogs are though (at least in my experience) exemplary at following ‘eye-gaze’. This does not seem to need to be taught.

  2. Jacqueline Moreno says:

    Mariana Bentosela, PhD working at the National Research Council (CONICET), Argentina. She is part of a group roughly translating to Group for the Research of Canid Behavior (Grupo de Investigación del Comportamiento de Cánidos).
    They have a facebook page in spanish:

    Companion Animal Mind Project. The founder is Kazuo Fujita, Ph.D. at the Department of Comparative Psychology in Kyoto University
    The site is in Japanese.

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