dog toy ball

A dog holding a ball (Photo by Blue Bird from Pexels)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Pet owners probably wonder what’s going on inside their dog’s mind all the time. Well, a new study is helping to answer that question, revealing how man’s best friend perceives and imagines their favorite toys.

A team with the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University has discovered that dogs have a “multi-modal mental image” of the objects they’re most familiar with at home. It means dogs can imagine their favorite balls, bones, and squeak toys’ different sensory features. Basically, a dog’s brain can remember the way that toy looks and even smells before their owner brings it into the room.

Researchers assume that the senses dogs use in multi-modal mental image also reflect the way a canine’s mind represents these objects in their brain.

“If we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it,” explains lead researcher Shany Dror in a university release. “When dogs use olfaction or sight while searching for a toy, this indicates that they know how that toy smells or looks like.”

Some dogs have a leg up on learning things

Previous studies by this same group have revealed that certain dogs are smarter than the average pup. These gifted dogs have the ability to learn names of both people and objects and remember them in exercises. Some can even learn up to 215 words!

“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 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, trainers gave the dogs treats and praised them if they chose the correct toy from a pile including four distracting toys.

Researchers then studied how each dog searched for the correct toy with the lights on and off. Results show that every dog in the experiment could successfully pick the right toy, although it took a little longer in the dark.

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

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

“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.

Since the dogs could pick out the correct toy in both light and dark rooms, study authors say dogs recall the specific object’s sensory features in order to sniff out the right one when they can’t see it.

“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,” explains Prof. Adam Miklósi, head of the Department of Ethology at ELTE University. “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.”

The findings are published in the journal Animal Cognition.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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