Understanding how dogs think

My favorite teacher in high school, Mr. Heisroth, taught American government, psychology and sociology for just over 31 years in Green, a suburb nestled between Akron and North Canton.

For 40 years, Mr. Heisroth and I have talked, usually on the phone, three to four times a year. After family updates, each call moves on to what I’m doing in my career and his travel plans until we finish with the state of the world and how we would make it better if only the world would listen.

So when your favorite high school teacher talks about an article he’s reading again – he likes to re-read articles in the Smithsonian magazine – and then sends you the article and the magazine, you take notice.

“Evolution of a Friendship” by Jeff MacGregor, published in December 2020, looks at the complex relationship between humans and dogs and why studying how dogs learn may teach us what it means to be human.

MacGregor spoke with Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory and the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University. Santos first started studying primates, but primates don’t spend a significant amount of time interacting with each other.

According to Santos, dogs were different: “Here’s this species that really is motivated to pay attention to what humans are doing. They really are clued in, and they really seem to have this communication bond with us.”

MacGregor summed it up this way: Researchers want to learn how dogs know and how they think and how it reflects on humans.

Teddy, our 7-year-old Lab, is a thinker. The pooch carefully observes our behaviors, particularly those of my husband, Ed, his fearless leader.

Teddy knows when Ed is going to work from home that day or is going to head into his office.

Several years ago, I wrote about Teddy mastering the cupcake tin game. Teddy learned to pick up a tennis ball with his teeth, drop it next to the tin and gobble up the treat.

These researchers would want to know how Teddy figured out Ed’s working arrangements and how he mastered the cupcake tin game.

In both cases, Teddy learned by observing us.

Every morning, the pooch carefully watches Ed grab the materials he needs for work. If Ed grabs his backpack Teddy’s demeanor changes. His dad is off to the office and he’s stuck with the lump still in bed, me, never mind the cat.

As for the cupcake tin game, Teddy watched me pick up the tennis ball and retrieve the treat. He first tried to push the ball off with his nose but quickly learned it was faster to pick it up with his teeth.

When talking with MacGregor, Santos said, “More and more, we need to figure out how to train dogs to do certain kinds of things. There are dogs in the military, there are service dogs. As our Boomers are getting older, we’re going to be faced with more and more folks who have disabilities, who have loneliness and so on. Understanding how dogs think can help us do that kind of training.”

Mr. Heisroth was right. This was an insightful, uplifting piece and I’ve just scratched the surface of it here. Anyone who enjoys the company of a dog would enjoy reading it, too.


Smithsonian is the official magazine of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The first issue was published in 1970. Michael Caruso has been the editor since 2011.

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