dog resting over arm of couch

What's Your Dog Really Thinking?

The average pooch has the intelligence of a toddler and can understand 165 sounds and signals. So what’s going on in their heads? Veterinarian Dr. Courtney Campbell shares some thoughts.

When They're Left Home Alone

"Dogs don't understand time in the same way we do, with seconds, minutes, hours, and days. But they may understand general quantities of time," says Campbell. Meaning: They know when you've been gone for five minutes versus five hours. Do they think about you that entire time? They might, actually. And if you have a routine, your dog has likely learned it. "Dogs prepare for humans around the time that they are scheduled to come home. They pace, pant, check the door, and act restless," he says.

When You're Sad

Has your pup ever come to your side while you're in tears? "Research suggests that dogs may display empathy," says Campbell. "They're highly responsive to human crying." They can distinguish sounds of distress from chatter or white noise, and some theorize they can respond with compassion because they developed emotional sensibilities over generations. Another explanation: "Your dog may come to your aid when you're crying because he notices something is amiss. He just isn't accustomed to you making those sounds."

When They're in Trouble

When you're stern with a dog, he'll display submissive behaviors— his ears will tilt back, he'll avoid eye contact, and maybe he'll wrinkle his brow. He may look guilty or feel shameful, Campbell says, but dogs "don't know right from wrong in an ethical or moral sense." They are, however, great at learning when rewards and punishment can be expected. They also understand your tone. Your pup can tell when you're mad, but he can only connect it to the immediate present, experts say. So scolding needs to happen within three seconds of the bad behavior in order for learning to occur.

When They're Sleeping

Just like humans, dogs enter REM while they're sleeping, often producing vivid dreams, Campbell explains. We'll never know exactly what they're dreaming about, but it's likely typical doggie stuff (chasing birds, eating steaks). And we know that dogs can have night terrors, which may lead to aggression when they wake up. If you suspect your dog is having one, Campbell says to interrupt it remotely by, say, ringing the doorbell, so you're not interacting with the dog when he wakes.

When You're Making Eye Contact

Consider this permission to get lost in those sweet eyes: "A dog's oxytocin levels rise when they gaze at us," Campbell says, referring to a hormone that plays a role in bonding, trust, and altruism. (Fun fact: The same connection has been found between human babies and mothers.) "Dogs love us and understand that we love them—and they show this through the most obvious signs, like tail wagging and licking— but they understand our love even more on a biochemical level."

This article originally appeared in our Holiday 2021 issue. Get the magazine here