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Dogs Mentally Understand How Much We Love Them, Canine Cognition Expert Assures

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Getty

We recently learned that your dog most likely lovingly dreams of you, so it should be no surprise that you are on their mind almost all of the time.

To get an idea of just how your pup thinks and feels, Dr. Brian Hare has dedicated his life to studying canine cognition and its eccentricities. He has recently teamed up with Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind, a dog food dedicated to improving your pet’s cognitive function, to help owners figure out what’s really going on in their dog’s brain.

To strengthen the bond between humans and their pups even further, Dr. Hare has answered some of the burning canine cognition questions many curious dog lovers have.

Does my dog know how much I love him? 

Yes, your dog knows how much you love him! Dogs and humans have a very special relationship, where dogs have actually hijacked the human oxytocin bonding pathway that is normally reserved for our babies. When you stare at your dog, both your oxytocin levels go up, the same as when you pet them and play with them. It makes you both feel good and reinforces your bonding. Does your dog ever stare at you for no reason? They are just “hugging you” with their eyes.

Are dogs known to go through depression like humans? 

It is very possible for dogs to become depressed. After 9/11 it was reported that many of the search and rescue dogs were suffering from depression-like symptoms because they could never find any survivors, only bodies. Their handlers would stage “fake” finds so that the dogs would cheer up and keep searching. Additionally, dogs do tend to become attached to their owners and will behave differently when that person is not around. Given their great capacity for empathy, dogs can also respond to their owners’ moods and feelings, like depression.

How many words can a dog actively understand? 

This is one of the big recent discoveries in the canine cognition science community. Some dogs can learn “object labels” or words the same way as humans infants. So these dogs are not learning through trial and error or repetition, but learning through inference. They use a strategy called the “principle of exclusion” and, just as with humans, the researchers did not find an upper limit to the number of words these dogs can learn. Dogs are the only species other than humans that have been found to have this ability. Now the question is whether all dogs can do this, or only some.

How much do we know about dogs’ abilities to make decisions? Do dogs problem solve? 

Dogs problem solve all of the time, although they all approach and solve problems in their own way. One of the exciting things about cognitive science is that it allows us to examine dogs’ minds, just by observing how they make choices. For instance, if I hide food under one of two cups, then point to the empty cup, a dog that follows my point is a social problem solver — he wants to cooperate with me to solve the problem. But a dog that chooses the cup where they saw me put the food originally is relying on his memories instead.

Is there something you’ve found that owners can do to support their dogs’ brain health and mental well-being? 

Dogs are just like us; they need a good diet, lots of exercise and mental stimulation. It sounds simple, but doing these three things can really help your dog reach his full potential. Nutrition, in particular, becomes especially important around age 7 when the glucose metabolism in his brain begins to change. I feed my dog Tassie Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+, which contains enhanced botanical oils shown to promote alertness and mental sharpness in dogs seven and older. I also make sure he gets lots of exercise for both his body and mind, with long walks, swimming and playing our Dognition games.