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The Dog Brain: How It Works & What Dogs Think About All Day

May 16, 2022

We all love our dogs, but that doesn’t mean we always understand how their brains work. Oftentimes, the inner workings of their mind can seem deeply mysterious to us. What are the functions of a dog’s brain and what are the limitations of those functions? In this article, we will be exploring how dogs’ brains work and what they think about.

How Big Is a Dog’s Brain?

There is of course some deviation in terms of brain size depending on a dog’s overall body size, but there is a standard size. Most dogs’ brains are roughly the size of a lemon, tangerine, or any other small to medium-sized citrus fruit. You do have to take into account dog breeds along with the pet’s size.

For instance, Labrador Retrievers or Border Collies are larger domestic dogs, allowing more space for a big brain. Incidentally, each of those breeds is considered to be among the smartest among many kinds of pet dogs. You might think that all large dog breeds are therefore at an advantage over small dogs when it comes to overall intelligence, but this is not always the case.

Are Dogs With Bigger Brains Smarter Than Dogs With Smaller Brains?

In reality, it truly is not just about the size of the brain, but it’s how you use it. Over time, it has become more readily apparent that a dog’s brain size does not necessarily inform their intelligence. Small dogs have been shown to have the ability to outsmart large dogs, largely disproving that theory. Although a Greyhound is still going to travel a distance faster than a Pomeranian, it is not due to superior or inferior intelligence.

It is also important to consider that the size of a dog’s brain is not the only deciding factor in their intelligence. We must also consider the ratio of the dog’s body size to their brain size.

For instance, Chihuahuas actually have quite large brains when you take into account the scale of their bodies. As a result, Chihuahuas have the capacity to be quite intelligent.

In What Ways Is a Dog Brain Different From a Human Brain?

It is natural that we would wonder how similar or different animals’ brains are to ours. Of course, our brains share a great many similarities with various primates. However, there is more exploration to be done when it comes to how similar or different our brains function to that of a dog.

Through the use of brain scans, we have vastly improved our knowledge about how our brains differ from dogs’.

Differences in the Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is one of the most important parts of the brain. It is responsible for a whole host of crucial brain activity, such as our awareness, consciousness, and information processing abilities. Essentially, without it, we would be unable to properly perceive the world around us. At the same time, we would lack self-awareness and a general sense of understanding.

Luckily, dogs do still possess a cerebral cortex. That being said, it is significantly smaller than the ones that we see in human brains. In the human brain, the cerebral cortex takes up roughly 80% of the overall brain. This is a percentage that is unmatched by other species. This means that humans have the greatest capacity for this sense of heightened understanding and perception.

Since dogs do still have a cerebral cortex — albeit a significantly smaller one — they are still capable of information processing. However, they are not able to do it at anywhere near the rates that we are. This explains why dogs tend to have simpler thoughts. Rather than pondering the fate of the universe or what it all means, your dog is likely wondering if it is almost time for dinner.

For more context, look no further than the discrepancy in our neurons. Dogs possess about 530 cortical neurons, but humans can have up to 16 billion. Neurons are the messenger of the brain, as they communicate signals to both the rest of the brain and the nervous system alike. Since we have so many more neurons, we are capable of doing more, and doing it faster.

In What Ways Is a Dog Brain Similar to a Human Brain?

Now that we have covered a key difference between human and dog brains, let’s get into a slightly more fun topic. We all want to know how our brain might be similar to that of our best friend, even if that best friend happens to be our dog.

The Ability To Feel Emotions

Our capacity to share emotional experiences with our dogs is part of what makes our bond so strong. There are some emotions that are incredibly easy to spot in our dogs.

When we come home and their tails wag all over the place, we recognize that this body language communicates that they are happy and excited. However, there are many other somewhat complex emotions that we have discovered dogs are also able to feel.

Unfortunately, with that increased capacity for emotions comes several negative feelings. Just like humans, dogs are able to experience feelings of anger, sadness, and fear. They can even suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you suspect that your dog might be going through one of these struggles, be sure to bring it up with their vet as soon as possible. They can recommend ways to help your pet feel better, and could even prescribe medication if they feel it could help.

Can Dogs Recognize Human Faces?

Not only are dogs capable of recognizing different individual people, but they are also able to distinguish how someone might be feeling based on their facial features. Before you even speak, your dog likely already has a strong indication of your emotional response. Dogs are able to recognize human emotions and can even go so far as to connect our facial expressions with our tone of voice.

Dogs can identify sadness, happiness, anger, and disgust in people solely from how we emote through our faces. When you add a dog’s ability to interpret vocal tone, though, they become even more emotionally intelligent.

Can Dogs Recognize Different Tones of Voice?

Dogs are indeed capable of recognizing our different tones of voice. Canines can recognize remarkably subtle shifts in vocalization in their fellow dogs, so it makes sense that they would develop the ability to discern human tonalities as well. Anecdotally, this also tracks.

If you have ever used a “baby voice” with your dog only to see them become excited, that is because they understood the positivity in your voice. So, the next time that someone looks at you strangely for using a baby voice with your dog in public, just tell them your dog understands.

Do Dogs Have a Sense of Time?

This question has often been a perplexing one for scientists, veterinarians, and pet parents alike. After all, our dogs seem to have a remarkably precise internal clock when breakfast or dinner is in question. If their constant pestering starting shortly before their regular mealtime is any indication, it would stand to reason that dogs do have a sense of time.

There is also the fact that dogs can predict when their pet parents will arrive back home after work. They often await this event with total excitement, making for a wonderful welcome home after a long day. All of these benchmarks are recognizable to your dog due to their routine. Dogs thrive off of routine, as it makes them feel safe, secure, and confident.

The truth is that we have yet to come up with a concrete answer to this fascinating question. Clearly, dogs know how to recognize certain events as they occur throughout the day.

However, our canine companions do not have the ability to quantify time as it passes. For instance, they will not necessarily recognize the difference between you being gone for five minutes, an hour, or five hours.

Due to this, dogs are always living completely in the moment. We could all learn something from a dog’s capacity to be fully grounded and present.

Do Dogs Dream?

Have you ever witnessed your dog in a seemingly deep sleep, only to begin unconsciously pawing or vocalizing shortly after? This is not a cause for alarm. Instead, this is just an indication that your dog is dreaming.

What Do They Dream About?

That’s right; just like humans, our dogs are capable of having dreams. While people could have dreams about wild subjects like flying, our dogs’ dreams are much more based on reality.

Instead, dogs likely just dream about their daily life. If your dog starts a running motion in their sleep, perhaps they are envisioning a squirrel that they saw outside not too long ago.

Can Dogs Have Nightmares?

Unfortunately, there is also a negative side that comes with dreaming. While we are capable of having fantastic dreams, they can also turn scary in the form of a nightmare. This is also true for our dogs. If your dog has had a prior negative experience with something like a thunderstorm, it is possible for them to rehash it in the form of a dream.

Dogs’ Amazing Sense of Smell Is Traced Back to Their Brain

Just like human brains, the canine brain contains regions that are dedicated to specific functions. In nearly all cases, the equivalent part of the brain in dogs is smaller than that seen in humans. This is to say that a region such as the hippocampus is substantially bigger in humans than it is in dogs, even when it is scaled down.

The hippocampus is primarily responsible for the storing of memories and other tasks relating to cognition. When you consider this size difference, it suddenly makes a great deal of sense that humans have much better memories than dogs.

While this is true in nearly every part of the brain, there are regions that are substantially bigger in dogs. These brain regions are known as the olfactory bulb and the olfactory cortex.

Together, the olfactory bulb and olfactory cortex are directly responsible for a dog’s ability to perceive smells. It has never been a secret that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but the exact reason why might have eluded us.

The canine mind has been fine-tuned over generations to help dogs survive in the wild. After all, wild animals need the ability to sniff out prey, find a mate, and recognize others’ territory. Even through significant domestication, dogs have still retained this ability. This is just one ability that makes dogs incredibly helpful allies, as well as wonderful friends.

Advances in Neuroscience Show Us How Dogs React to Rewards

With the use of a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (FMRI machine), humans have been able to make some truly fascinating realizations about dogs. One of the most simultaneously riveting and adorable discoveries was one regarding a dog’s reward system. Scientist Gregory Berns is renowned for his work studying the canine brain, and these findings helped to establish him as an authority on all things related to dogs.

A new study was conducted where dogs were shown different hand gestures. Some of these gestures signaled that they were about to receive a treat, while others did not. What scientists found was that a dog’s brain would light up after viewing the gesture that indicates a treat. Meanwhile, they would not light up in the same way when they saw the other hand movements.

The part of a dog’s brain that would light up is the same in humans’ brains, adding to the similarities between the two species’ minds.

How Can You Study a Dog’s Brain in an FMRI Machine?

For a long time, dogs’ brains were only capable of having brain imaging done when they were unconscious. Otherwise, scientists feared that there would be too much movement. While this gave us the opportunity to better understand a dog’s brain structure, we were not able to study the brain during regular dog behavior.

Eventually, neuroscientists remembered something about dogs that most of us pet parents already know all too well: dogs are highly trainable. With enough time, patience, and a whole bunch of treats, various dogs could be taught to remain still enough for a comprehensive neuroimage to be taken. As soon as this breakthrough was made, scientists were able to discover so much more about the inner workings of dogs’ minds than ever before.

So What Do Dogs Think About All Day?

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to the question of what dogs think about all day. While their pet parents are around, they might be considering the slight changes in your voice to gauge your mood. On the other hand, they could be feeling anxious due to an unfamiliar smell nearby their territory.

However, we can all rest assured knowing one fact for certain: if it is even remotely close to mealtime, your dog is probably thinking about food.


Are Bigger Dogs With Bigger Brains Smarter? | Sky News

Dog Neuron Count | Academy Pet Hospital

Comparative Morphometry of the Olfactory Bulb, Tract and Stria in the Human, Dog and Goat | Scientific Electronic Library Online

Dogs Recognize Dog and Human Emotions | National Institutes of Health

Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs | Public Library of Science

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