Dogs imagine the different sensory characteristics of the object. Credit: Photo by Cooper Photo

Inside a Dog’s Mind: Dogs Have a “Multimodal Mental Image” of Familiar Objects

Many dog ​​lovers are curious to know what is going through the minds of their furry companions. Fortunately, the answer is now within reach of scientists. Researchers from the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest have found that dogs have a “multimodal mental image” of their familiar objects in a new study recently published in the journal animal cognition. This implies that dogs visualize the many sensory aspects of an object when they think about it. For example, taking into account its appearance or smell.

Scientists have speculated that the senses dogs use to recognize objects, such as their toys, correspond to how those objects are conceptualized in their brains. “If we can understand what senses dogs use when looking for a toy, it may reveal how they feel about it,” says Shany Dror, one of the study’s lead researchers. “When dogs use olfaction or sight when looking for a toy, it indicates that they know what that toy looks like.”

Gaia gifted dog

A photo of Gaia, one of the gifted dogs (from Brazil) searching for her toy in light (left) and darkness (right). Credit: Shany Dror

In previous studies, researchers have found that only a few particularly gifted dogs can learn the names of objects. “These word-learning dogs give us insight into their minds, and we can find out what they’re thinking when we ask them – Where’s your teddy bear?” explains Dr. Andrea Sommese, the second principal investigator.

In the first experiment, they trained 3 gifted word-learning dogs and 10 typical family dogs (i.e. dogs that don’t know the names of toys) to fetch a toy associated with a reward. Dogs were rewarded with treats and praise throughout training for choosing this toy over a few distracting 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 in both light and dark. However, it took them longer to find the toys in the dark. Only Gifted Word Learner dogs participated in the second experiment. Here, researchers set out to find out what these dogs think of when they hear the name of their toys.


How do dogs think about toys? Credit: Genius Dog Challenge

“Revealing the senses dogs used to search for the named toys allowed us to deduce what these dogs are imagining when they hear, for example, explains Teddy Bear, Dr. Claudia Fugazza, co-author of the study.

Gifted dogs successfully selected toys named by their owners in light and dark. This reveals that when they hear the name of a toy, they remember the different sensory characteristics of that object and can use this “multi-sensory mental image” to identify it, even in the dark.

“Dogs have a good sense of smell, but we found that the dogs preferred to rely on their vision and only used their noses a few times, and almost only when the lights were off,” says Professor Adam Miklósi, head of the department. of ethology. at ELTE University and co-author of the study. “Dogs sniffed more often and longer in the dark. They spent 90% more time sniffing when the lights were off, but that only accounted for 20% of the search time. »

In conclusion, the success of dogs in finding the toys and the different senses used when searching in light and dark reveals that when dogs play with a toy, even briefly, they pay attention to its different characteristics and register information using multiple senses.

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

Reference: “Multisensory mental representation of objects in typical and gifted learning dogs” by Shany Dror, Andrea Sommese, Ádám Miklósi, Andrea Temesi and Claudia Fugazza, June 8, 2022, Animal cognition.
DOI: 10.1007/s10071-022-01639-z