In Fido’s thoughts: How dogs remember their favorite toys

Budapest, Hungary – Pet owners probably wonder what’s on their dog’s mind all the time. Well, a new study helps answer that question, revealing how man’s best friend perceives and imagines his favorite toy.

A team from the Family Dogs Project at Eötvös Loránd University has found that dogs have a “multimodal mental image” of the objects they are most familiar with in the home. This means dogs can visualize the different sensory qualities of their favorite balls, bones, and squeaky toys. Basically, a dog’s brain can remember what that toy looks like and even smells like before its owner brings it into the room.

Researchers theorize that the senses dogs use in multimodal mental imagery also reflect the way a dog’s mind represents those objects in its brain.

“If we can understand which senses dogs use when looking for a toy, it can shed light on how they think about it,” explains lead researcher Shany Dror in a university publication. “When dogs use their sense of smell or sight when looking for a toy, it suggests they know what that toy smells or looks like.”

Some dogs have one leg when it comes to learning things

Previous studies by the same group have shown that certain dogs are smarter than the average pup. These gifted dogs have the ability to learn names of both people and objects and to memorize them through practice. Some can even learn up to 215 words!

“These gifted word-learning dogs give us a glimpse into their thoughts, and we can find out what they’re thinking about if we ask them – Where’s your teddy bear?” explains Dr. Andrea Sommese, the second lead researcher on the project.

In their first experiment, the team trained three “gifted” dogs and 10 family pets to fetch a toy that would earn them a treat afterwards. During the exercise, the trainers gave the dogs treats and praised them when they chose the right toy from a stack of four distracting toys.

The researchers then studied how each dog searched for the right toy with the lights on and off. The results show that each dog in the experiment was able to successfully choose the right toy, although it took a little longer in the dark.

A picture of Gaia, one of the gifted dogs (from Brazil), searching for her toys in the light (left) and in the dark (right) (Credit: Eötvös Loránd University)

In the next test, the researchers tried to find out what these dogs think of when they hear someone say the name of the right toy. However, the team only used the gifted puppies in this experiment.

“Uncovering the senses that dogs use to search for these toys gave us the opportunity to infer what these dogs imagine when they hear, for example, teddy bear,” explains Dr. Claudia Fugazza, co-author of the study.

Because the dogs were able to choose the right toy in both bright and dark rooms, the study authors said the dogs remembered the sensory characteristics of the specific object to sniff out the right one when they couldn’t see it.

“Dogs have a good sense of smell, but we found that dogs prefer to rely on sight and only use their nose a few times, and almost only when the lights are off,” explains Prof. Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Behavioral Research at ELTE University. “Dogs sniffed more often and longer in the dark. They spent 90% more time sniffing when the lights were off, but that was still only 20% of the search time.”

The results are published in the journal Animal cognition.

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