What Are Dogs Thinking?

I’m still searching for a point of intersection with the mainstream interpretations of behavior and learning and I’m starting to get the impression the learning theorists are ducking a simple question. I’ve posted it here and on several sites, and perhaps it’s so simple it’s thought of as trivial, especially with all the heady talk of learning theory, but if so, this is a critical error.

Currently on the web site “Dog Star Daily,” which is promulgating the work of Dr. Ian Dunbar, Lee Kelley is engaged in a point-by-point discussion involving neuro-anatomy and learning theory as he argues for a different interpretation of what such evidence reveals.

Click here for the discussion.

Lee is being taken to task for an article he wrote on his Psychology Today Blog wherein he entertains the proposition that Operant Conditioning might be losing the intellectual battle against the Cesar Milan media juggernaut because why would there be a media juggernaut if Operant Conditioning model was truly comprehensive. The OC camp counters by saying what battle? And if there is one it’s due to a misapplication and misunderstanding of learning theory. They also argue that whatever technical success Cesar enjoys is due to his inadvertently capitalizing on those aspects of learning theory that he is able to apply correctly.

As I mentioned, on this particular web site there is in depth discussion of neural anatomy as well as liberal use of the term “thinking.” The following quote was posted by “fun4fido” in the above mentioned article and thread that was prompted by Lee’s article.

“…there are two different processes, a dogs behaviour is guided by either emotion or thinking. Two sets of structures in the brain share a very important relationship in canine behaviour. The limbic system is a complex circuit of neural structures involved in the expression and experience of emotions. The cerebral cortex on the other hand is involved in various cognitive functions including learning, thinking and problem solving.

The limbic system and the cerebral cortex have an inverse relationship. When either one is activated, the other system cancels out, or rather gets over-ridden. If a dog is mentally stimulated and encouraged to think, his cerebral cortex will be activated and learning is effective. In this state he is less likely to experience intense emotional responses. Likewise, a dog that experiences intense emotional responses has his limbic system activated and his cerebral cortex inhibited. A dog experiencing an intense emotional response – and I must stress the word intense, is reacting to a given stimulus/event and no longer thinking. This intense emotional frame of mind is not a good place for a dog to be because it can push him/her to react instinctively, and not all instinctive behaviours are helpful to a dog in the human world.

Learning is best accomplished when a dog is in thinking mode, in particular, this is why counter conditioning and desensitisation should always be applied while the dog is sub-threshold, when a dog is over threshold his/her stress level is too high, emotions take over, the dog starts to react, and is unable to learn effectively.”

Now this is a very definitive statement based on drawing an explicit connection between components of the brain, and I can understand the merit of such logic. The fact that dogs and humans share certain critical brain structures that seem central to thinking does present a compelling argument that dogs may be capable of thinking. OC believes this is then confirmed in the phenomenon of learning. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask the question that such definitive statements beg, what are dogs thinking?

Pet communicators likewise claim that dogs think but then they go on the record and articulate what they think dogs are thinking. So since learning theorists argue that the phenomena of complex and learned behavior is fully encompassed by the science of learning, what are dogs thinking?

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Published October 18, 2009 by Kevin Behan

118 responses to “What Are Dogs Thinking?”

  1. Have you done “The Pushing Exercise?” Its effects can’t be explained through any other means other than Kevin’s energy theory.

    Why the Pushing Exercise WorksWhy the Pushing Exercise Works


  2. Sorry, more gabreld stuff. (That was intentional, the bit with the word “garbled.”)

    If you click on that lonesome “The” it’ll link you to my description of how to do the pushing exercise. The other link is self-explanatory.

    Kevin may have other info in mind, but to my way of thinking, if there’s anything that definitively proves Kevin’s theory, it’s this one exercise.


  3. kbehan says:

    In addition to the pushing exercise, I feel the eye-contact exercise is quite definitive. There’s no conditioning involved, the dog manifests the behavior in seconds because it’s an underlying template for its very consciousness. In future articles I’ll broaden the discussion to include other animals as well. But these are only tips of the iceberg. For example, why are any two dogs that live together evolve to become equals and yet opposites in all things but one? And if one dog is removed and another inserted, sure enough over a period of time it too becomes the polar complement of the original dog. This is in contravention to all learning theory as with the eye-contact exercise. It is stunning to me how much of behavior does not fit into the current models and yet there is no serious questioning. Meanwhile, these experiments I have profiled on this site have gross misinterpretations based on anthropomorphic projection of thoughts into the dog’s mind and this just slides by. Not to mention that no mainstream model can accommodate the phenomena of sexuality, personality, sociability, aggression, play, emotion and yet again no serious questioning of the current models.
    Ultimately, everything requires a leap of faith and so I don’t guarantee I can prove anything, rather I’m arguing for the most comprehensive and conservative interpretation of the evidence, which is exactly how particle physics is conducted. Despite the high falutin math in physics, the evidence remains circumstantial and indirect.
    You would be surprised to learn how much dog training has shifted over the last twenty years to incorporate the prey instinct/drive I’ve been promulgating and yet the mainstream models that co-opt the techniques then claim it verifies the very model it contradicts. Holistic vets are only recently coming around to the health of a whole dog.
    Finally, since I’m arguing that emotion is the basis of a networked intelligence, therefore the same animal mind that runs the dog runs our emotional mind as well so if one is willing to suspend everything they think they know about the dog, and try to get in touch with my energy theory without resorting to any human thought to understand a dog’s behavior, they will be able to see the dog anew. I believe one can know what’s going on in a dog’s mind because it’s going on in our animal mind as well. Self exploration and a willingness to question everything is really the only way to know what I’m saying. Hope this helps, thanks.

  4. kbehan says:

    The second brain is not in the head, it is called the little-brain-in-the-gut, aka the enteric nervous system, aka the emotional brain. Humans and dogs have the same temperament, the same emotional mind, i.e. heart, which is a faculty of intelligence that reconciles the two brains and generates a true feeling. The difference is humans can think about what we feel and so we must choose to go by feel, whereas dogs just do.

  5. Burl says:


    I found your website some years back when we first got our shelter dogs and we both read your book with interest. Your thoughts on energy resonated with what we see, and I have often mentioned these notions (and you) to other dog people over the years.

    I recently revisited your site, now with its blogs, vids, and more ideas – most excellent. I have been studying philosophy as an avocation, and my biggest interest is in justifying my heartfelt conviction of how much is akin and in harmony between human and dog psyches (souls, if one wishes). (I was unconvincing in conveying my views to bloggers who followed a Cartesian body-mind(=religious spiritual soul) philosophy.

    You have implied that you are open to scientific support and elaboration of your theories. I believe you might find extremely close collaboration between your ideas and the branch of metaphysical philosophy known as Process Thought, originated by the Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in _Process and Reality_ in 1929. Another more accessible writer whose thoughts are also process philosophy is Robert Pirsig of _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_.

    Both speak of the centrality of the ‘immediate moment’ as the baseic reality. For Whitehead’s natural evolutionary cosmology, the only realities are ‘occasions of experience’ which are moments of activity caused by the FEELINGS, which each occasion takes into itself from its world. Whitehead coined the term ‘prehension’ to describe this ‘grasping’ of feelings, and he developed a fairly elaborate theory of all manner of these prehensions. He developed process philosophy (he also called it Philosophy of Organism) to bring science (particularly the new quantum theory) into a balance with itself and an experiencing world.

    His theory of consciousness, which is attained in higher order sentient occasions of experience, is that it is the subjective form (essence) of those types of feelings that concern ‘what if this were not so’, or ‘if this were somehow something different).

    I just thought you and your blog readers might be interested.

  6. Christine says:

    I found Burl’s blog interesting, especially his reference to Rene Descartes (Cartesian Philosophy). I consider myself to be a spiritual person (i.e. spiritual as opposed to religious; there is a difference!) and the Bible does support the concept that humans are not the only beings with souls. Genesis 1:20-31 refers to acquatic creatures, flying creatures and land animals as having souls, the same as humans. And we were given dominion over all of it so we ARE the masters, or more appropriately, the stewards of the earth. Kevin’s theories and philosphies seem to me to dovetail nicely with how the universe really works; the emotional battery and going by feel because thinking IS the box. Not that thinking is a bad thing, it is a gift from God. However, in our present, imperfect state we tend to misuse that gift and we get all balled up relying on thinking and logic alone as opposed to trusting our “gut” (feelings if you prefer).
    Whether or not dogs are here for us to learn from is intential or happenstance I cannot say definitively. I am content with the understanding that ALL of creation is here for a reason and that we can learn a great deal from any and all parts of it.
    If any object to my references to the Bible and God I am sorry, I do not intend to offend or make anyone feel uncomfortable, but that is how I FEEL!

  7. Heather says:

    I remember a story of a Zen teacher asking his students “what is the way to enlightenment?” and one saying “polishing the mirror.” That was close, apparently, but the student who was ultimately to become the next master replied “what mirror?” The meaning being that while there is still an awareness of the mirror, a person is not truly living in the moment – there is still that separation.

    I also don’t know whether dogs are here by some intention or design, but I guess it doesn’t much matter because they just are. The biggest obstacle to humans living in the moment is our own thinking – and a dog can (literally) be the mirror in the most difficult circumstances (its not the quiet moments that are difficult, but the super-charged ones). How amazing is that?

    Before getting a dog I really had no idea how amazing they are. Certainly they are worthy of our respect and efforts to support their innate way of being! It seems to me that to try to humanize them by looking at their behavior it through the filter of human thought as a starting point (the “+R” specifically), is to get it backwards. Not that I think it is necessarily harmful to the dog, and the dog may perform at the highest level, but it is missing a lot of the wonder and it is more of a loss from a human point of view (to have something but not know it).

  8. kbehan says:

    I’ll be looking into the references you’ve posted but I’ve been warned that Whitehead is extremely difficult so don’t know how far I’ll get. If you would like to submit any correlates you’ve found between this philosophical systems and dog-as-being-of-the-immediate-moment, that could be helpful. At any rate, keep us posted and thanks for checking in and offering this input.

  9. kbehan says:

    Right, the dog can lead us to the water, but it can’t prevent us from seeing our own reflection in it. I do believe however that we can see through the mirror if we learn to see by feel. We can learn to do this by seeing dogs in terms of the immediate-moment with emotion being a function of energy. Thanks.

  10. kbehan says:

    Christine: I would hope that no one here would take offense by anything one might think in a genuine pursuit of understanding. (In my emotional model there’s no such THING as offense, it’s actually a function of fear.) While I’m all for intellectual combat, humility is always in order as we may not be in any position to rate any given fundamental proposition as being more or less fantastical than another. It seems to me that the mainstream biological theory that consciousness emerged from nothing; is just as fantastic and requires the exact same leap of faith as the Creation story, alien insemination or quantum weirdness. Just because certain ideas might be conventional, doesn’t necessarily make them the most conservative interpretation of the evidence. Keep on pushing!

  11. christine randolph says:

    about this blog…
    there’s 110 responses to this topic. i guess 111 with mine now.
    when i click on the new posts to ReadMore, i then have to scroll down all the way and click Newer Posts to actually see the entire post.
    Kevin tried to start a new discussion at New Years so we can contribute to that ? it would be easier. I think… can we do that ?

  12. Charlie Rose had an animal cognition “expert” on last night, proclaiming all the ways that “science” is now discovering how animals think.

    To shore up his position, he showed this video of Kanzi, the bonobo, and how well he “understands” language.


    In the video, the researcher — who is oddly wearing a welder’s mask to prevent Kanzi from reading her eyes (why not wear goggles?) — asks Kanzi to do a series of simple tasks involving two nouns, each for a different object, and a verb.

    “Kanzi, could you cut the onions with your knife?”

    Kanzi seems to think about it, looks around, locates the knife, and cuts the onions.

    “Could you put some soap on your ball?”

    Kanzi squeezes some dish soap onto a ball.

    But look very closely at the video very carefully starting at about 1:30.

    “Kanzi, pour the Perrier water …”

    Kanzi reaches for a jar of jelly.

    “… into the jelly.”

    Kanzi picks up the bottle of Perrier, then pours the Perrier into the jelly jar.

    Yes, he did as he was asked, but his behavior was out of sequence with her words. This means that either this particular behavior (and perhaps the rest of them) was rehearsed over and over — which removes some of the mystery of how Kanzi supposedly “understands” the meanings of words — they’re not words so much as audio cues — or else Kanzi was picking up a mental image of the jelly jar from the researcher before she mentioned it.

    Why did Charlie Rose and his animal cognition expert miss this important clue as to what was really going on with Kanzi? It’s right there on the video, clear as day.


  13. Here’s the cover from the recent issue of Time Magazine. It features a pug with the headline: WHAT ANIMALS THINK. Jeffrey Kluger, Charlie Rose’s animal cognition expert, is a senior science editor at Time, and is the author of the cover article: “Inside the Minds of Animals…”



  14. Marc Hauser, who up until two days ago headed the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard, has been accused of misrepresenting his results in at least one of his key papers on animal cognition, the purported ability of tamarin monkeys to generalize patterns the way human infants do when learning language.

    “Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser a well-known scientist and author of the book Moral Minds is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory. … An internal examination at Harvard University . . . found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article.” – Boston Globe



  15. Heather says:

    gee, how surprising, an “expert” on morality accused of misconduct. A good example of why making things all about the mind is going to lead to believing those pesky contradictory logic loops.

  16. I looked into Marc Hauser’s work, and it turns out he’s actually been a voice of caution in the field. He was quoted thusly in the recent Time Magazine article:

    “Hauser takes a more nuanced view., arguing that people are possessed with what he calls humaniqueness, a suite of cognitive skills including the ability to recombine information to gain new understanding, a talent animals simply don’t have. All creatures may exist on a developmental continuum, he argues, but the gap between us and the second-place finishers is so big it shows we truly are something special.”


  17. Check out my latest article for PsychologyToday.com.

    Here’s the blurb: “Before testing a dog’s intelligence, dognitive scientists would do well to hire an old-time SchutzHund master, or a veteran police dog handler, or anyone else with a longstanding working knowledge of how dogs really think. Because when a working dog is working, there is simply no scale that can measure his intelligence. It’s a force of nature.”



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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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