A Glimpse Into the Dog’s Mind: A New Study Reveals How Dogs Think of Their Toys

Summary: Dogs have multi-modal mental imagery of items and objects that are familiar to them. When a dog thinks about an object, they imagine the object’s different sensory features.

Source: ELTE

Many dog lovers want to know what goes on in their furry friends’ minds. Now scientists are finally getting closer to the answer.

In a new study just published in the journal of Animal Cognition, researchers from the Family Dog Project (Eötvös Loránd University University, Budapest) found out that dogs have a “multi-modal mental image” of their familiar objects.

This means that, when thinking about an object, dogs imagine the object’s different sensory features. For instance, the way it looks or the way its smells.

The group of scientists assumed that the senses dogs use to identify objects, such as their toys, reflect the way the objects are represented in their minds.

“If we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it” explains Shany Dror, one of the leading researchers of this study.

“When dogs use olfaction or sight while searching for a toy, this indicates that they know how that toy smells or looks like”.

In previous studies, the researchers discovered that only a few uniquely gifted dogs can learn the names of objects.

“These Gifted Word Learner dogs give us a glimpse into their minds, and we can discover what they think about when we ask them – Where is your Teddy Bear?” explains Dr. Andrea Sommese, the second leading researcher.

In the first experiment, they trained 3 Gifted Word Learner dogs and 10 typical family dogs (i.e., dogs that do not know the name of toys), to fetch a toy associated with a reward. During the training, dogs received treats and were praised for choosing this toy over a few distractor toys.

The researchers then observed how the dogs searched for the targeted toy, always placed among 4 others, both when the lights were on and off. All dogs successfully selected the trained toys, both in the light and in the dark. However, it took them longer to find the toys in the dark.

Only the Gifted Word Learner dogs participated in the second experiment. Here, the researchers aimed to find out what these dogs think about when they hear the name of their toys.

“Revealing the senses used by the dogs to search for the named toys gave us the possibility to infer what these dogs imagine when they hear, for example, Teddy Bear,” explains Dr. Claudia Fugazza, co-author of the study.

This shows a dog with a lot of snuggly toys
Dogs imagine the object’s different sensory features. Credit: Cooper Photo

The Gifted dogs were successful in selecting the toys named by their owners in the light and the dark. This reveals that, when they hear the name of a toy, they recall this object’s different sensory features and they can use this “multisensory mental image” to identify it, also in the dark.

“Dogs have a good sense of smell, but we found that dogs preferred to rely on vision and used their noses only a few times, and almost only when the lights were off,” clarifies Prof. Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology at ELTE University and co-author of the study.

“Dogs sniffed more often and for longer in the dark. They spent 90% more time sniffing when the lights were off, but this was still only 20% of the searching time”.

Credit: Genius Dog Challenge

To conclude, the dogs’ success in finding the toys and the different senses used while searching in the light and the dark reveals that, when dogs play with a toy, even just briefly, they pay attention to its different features and register the information using multiple senses.

This research is part of the Genius Dog Challenge research project that aims to understand the unique talent that Gifted Word Learner dogs have. The researchers encourage dog owners who believe their dogs know multiple toy names, to contact them on the Genius Dog Challenge website.

About this animal cognition research news

Author: Sara Bohm
Source: ELTE
Contact: Sara Bohm – ELTE
Image: The image is credited to Cooper Photo

Original Research: Closed access.
Multisensory mental representation of objects in typical and Gifted Word Learner dogs” by Shany Dror et al. Animal Cognition


Multisensory mental representation of objects in typical and Gifted Word Learner dogs

Little research has been conducted on dogs’ (Canis familiaris) ability to integrate information obtained through different sensory modalities during object discrimination and recognition tasks. Such a process would indicate the formation of multisensory mental representations. In

Experiment 1, we tested the ability of 3 Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs that can rapidly learn the verbal labels of toys, and 10 Typical (T) dogs to discriminate an object recently associated with a reward, from distractor objects, under light and dark conditions.

While the success rate did not differ between the two groups and conditions, a detailed behavioral analysis showed that all dogs searched for longer and sniffed more in the dark. This suggests that, when possible, dogs relied mostly on vision, and switched to using only other sensory modalities, including olfaction, when searching in the dark.

In Experiment 2, we investigated whether, for the GWL dogs (N = 4), hearing the object verbal labels activates a memory of a multisensory mental representation.

We did so by testing their ability to recognize objects based on their names under dark and light conditions. Their success rate did not differ between the two conditions, whereas the dogs’ search behavior did, indicating a flexible use of different sensory modalities. Little is known about the cognitive mechanisms involved in the ability of GWL dogs to recognize labeled objects.

These findings supply the first evidence that for GWL dogs, verbal labels evoke a multisensory mental representation of the objects.

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  1. Do you have any sources? Or were you joking?

    To the writer of this article: have you been around a service animal and their charge? Dogs have been doing this for decades helping people with disabilities.
    Search and Rescue dogs, cadaver dogs, dogs that are trained to alert on scent of illegal substances or medical conditions.

  2. My wife and I were outside enjoying a beautiful sunny d)ay.our dogcame running at a breakneck speed and piled into his doghouse we looked0 at each other and said what in the world was wrong with him. I said the horse flies must be after him.a good 10 minutes later a horrific and fas0t storm hit us and we didn’t even make it to the house before we were soaked.As fast as the storm was and how long it took to reach us he knew it was a bad.i doubt the dog was warned by hearing it.it took to long and was moving to fast.a lot of wild animals have this extra sense b4 a storm hits.

  3. After 60 years with dogs I’ve found they have an extra sense we don’t have.we had 2 dogs a 1 cat. The cat got sick and died at the veterans. Knowing the capability of this extra sense I did an experiment. I buried the cat deep in the ground to block any scent and took a long way around so the dogs couldn’t trail me to it
    I let each dog out separately and both went around the house and straight to the grave and stayed a short while how did they know this
    How can traling dogs know which way to go when they cross a scent trail.the tracks are less than a second old either way but mine knew instantly the right way.dogs have surprised me my whole life and could fill a book with express that defy logic as we know it.id love to share more but I’m sure the editors weren’t counting on a boo(.give these companions their just do.the/especially so muchore to them than we know.

  4. My dog knows all his 100’s of toys by name, plus our friends by name and which car they drive. He knows 1000’s of words. I believe that he understands language 100%, due to the fact he obeys very specific commands, he understands, he just can’t talk! He learns to spell when we talk in code. He used to go nuts playing with the laser. We called it red dot, and if u said red dot, he’d jump up and start looking for it. So we started spelling it, r-e-d-d-o-t, and one day, we spelled it, he jumped up looking for it. Now he can spell w-a-l-k, r-i-d-e, b-a-t-h , L-a-d-y (his girlfriend) and d-o-g p-a-r-k! He is a Basengi mix, smart as me and the best soul I’ve ever known!

  5. It’s evident the researchers never owned any dogs.i could name which child to wake up for school and our yellow lab always got it right.she was hesitant to wake up our daughter because she woke up grouchy. She was an expert in deception.i wouldn’t let her on the bed to sleep.when I came home she would be laying on the couch as if she had been there all day.id check the bed and there was always a dog sized warm spot on it I relented and let her sleep on it.she was to smart for me.she could have done the research better than the (experts) could have.dont believe everything u see.unless it’s a dog doing it

  6. So your telling me they used their sight to find the named toys when the lights were on and used their sense of smell in the dark? Whoa! That’s crazy! I’m sorry, but what is the point of all this? It’s literally just to find out what a dog is thinking when we say “get your ball”. What a joke, waste of money and time that could be spent researching and finding cures for diseases and things that will actually solve an issue or help people and animals. Stop wasting time on dumb things when there are actually issues that could use some attention.

  7. This is borderline stupid.

    I’ve never seen a dog unable to understand words/sounds.

    And most often it’s words they get as you can substantially change the tone for the same response

  8. My English Springer Spaniel knows all her toys, She is one and a half years old. I only say the name of the toy once when I buy them. She amazes everybody. She knows vehicles too .

  9. My Golden Retriever can distinguish about 150 words and commands. I can send a message to my husband when he is out on the fields; have the dog get a specific pair of boots or shoes–mine, my husbands, red or brown, boots or shoes. We can identify something as a “garden” such as a rug or play area and SpudMutt will make a square corner around it
    He will get his bowl or water dish, the cats dish or water bowl, the other dog’s dish or bowl. Tell him what you want, he will get it. His only mistake? Once at a friend’s house he saw me get ice from a refrigerator +
    Now,whenever he sees such a fridge, he helps himself to ice. Plus, he is really sweet.


  10. Dogs can think,that’s obvious don’t think k of them as trigger responsers ,my dog definitely can think

  11. My dog knows her toys names and has a huge number of words she clearly understands. We also have a cat who finds his “mouse” by scent when I tell him “get mouse”. He’ll then bring it to me so I can throw it for him.

    1. I’m pretty much in line with the rest of the dog lovers that have posted… I read something probably more interesting about how most dogs have an active word library of about 500-1000 key words, and a highly intelligent dog can be compared to a four or five year old, which we also do not give credit for being as intelligent as they actually are. Four year olds and dogs are both wicked smart, enough to not let on about how much they can wrap their brains around. Not only that but I am convinced my dog Chunk taught himself to teleport. I think we need to be asking ourselves “can dogs manipulate quantum space?” I think Madeline l’engle used the theme in “a wrinkle in time” and I will always, always believe whatever my four legged furry friends through thick and thin tell me, even if science can’t accept that fact.

  12. My dog knows which toy to grab by name! He might want to play and will grab any toy and I can say how about we play with your rope and he will go and get his rope toy or I can say let’s play with your dog, grover, squeaky, and others and he knows exactly which one to get and if he doesn’t want to switch he will shake his head no and make the sound for no at the same time! Science always trust to make animals so stupid and simple minded and they are just as complexed as ourselves! They learn as much as the owner will teach them!

  13. I can’t even count how many words my dog knows.. she loves rabbit ,,,,, knows all toys by name,,, we spell in front of her when needed. She’s as human as they come.

  14. I’ve raised and trained dogs for 60 yrs. and this is the most laughable and rediculous thing I’ve ever heard! My dogs know names, colors, and can understand more of what I say than most humans I know!
    This research was a huge joke and failure.

  15. Wow! You mean to tell me that these studies tell us what any dog owner already knew??? Groundbreaking research!

  16. My Boxador has two Hartz balls which are exactly the same except for the color. He will fetch either the green or orange depending on which I ask him to get. Best/smartest puppy ever!

  17. My Pandi gets a new toy every month.she has 18 toys and knows them by name.Each morning she asks for her toys.I put them up for an hour before bed to have some down time. I make Sweaters for her. She asks to have a sweater put on. I let her pick out the one she wants to wear. When her food bowl is empty,she brings it to me to Finland goes to the cupboard the food is stored and crys.

  18. My dog knows all her toys when asked for them. I have one major problem with my 7 year old rottweiler. She literally attacks the TV first it was certain commercials now it’s trucks or what ever she feels is a threat I assume.ihave tried everything I think. Is it just the way her brain is wired.i have to keep her on a lead. She’s so focused on the it she lashes out at whatever gets in way..plz help she’s a good dog very teddy bear until something she doesn’t like comes on the TV

  19. It wont happen in my lifetime, but i believe that dogs will evolve the ability to speak. And relatively soon. There is no question that dogs have the ability to feel love. And anything that can love, must have a soul. Dogs are the closest thing to a perfect being that God ever made. Except for his son of course.

  20. My dog knows her toys so precisely that with her two fox toys, she knows to get Fighty Fox or Foxy. She has about 5 or 6 that are favorites that she knows by name.

    1. The principle imprdiment to speaking for most animals is the physical positioning of their larynx/vocal cords. That said, Huskies already have a limited ability to speak. I had one who always articulated “out” to go out, and “wawa” for water. Another once objected to being put outside by say, quite clearly, “I don’t wanna go out.”

    1. My 1½ old chorkie can identify not only several toys but can go find (my husband) when asked where is daddy as well as shows immediate signs of understanding when I tell her daddy is coming to see you and runs to watch out a window. She also knows and can associate correctly each name of our other dogs in the house as well. It’s just my opinion but I believe the more a person talks with a dog the more a dog learns what they are saying.

      1. I couldn’t agree more I talk to my dog like she’s a human and she understands me well and when she doesn’t she’ll check her head to the side and if I continue to repeat that she tends to learn what that means too

    2. Mine is the same. He knows all the names of his toys. Even picks the difference between his red and blue fishy.

  21. Our dog knows the name of all her different toys and she grabs them as we call them out to her,

  22. Domesticated dogs are directly a product of us. Just as we evolved to stand upright and traverse the world over efficiently give birth, we also have to use toilet paper…dogs need us on a genetic level and as such rely less and less on their primordial inhibitions. A chihuahua is from a wolf, think about that.

    1. All dogs come from wolves. Dobermans weren’t always Dobermans. We created them through breeding

      1. The Chihuahua is the only one that is not a directly related to The Wolf it is genetically linked to a type of bat eared fox like mammal from Southern south America

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