Understanding Canine Cognition: Dogs Form Multi-Sensory Mental Images of Objects

by Lisa

Ever pondered what goes through your dog‘s mind when it eagerly hunts for its cherished toy? A recent study from the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest sheds light on the mysteries of the canine psyche. Researchers have revealed that dogs create “multi-modal mental images” of familiar objects, indicating that they remember and contemplate objects, such as their toys, across various sensory dimensions like appearance and scent.

Published in the journal Animal Cognition, the study marks a significant stride in unraveling the cognitive workings of our beloved canine companions.


Previous inquiries into canine cognition have increasingly unveiled dogs’ remarkably sophisticated ability to process and engage with their surroundings. Studies have delved into how dogs discern between different objects and respond to human language, unveiling a complex cognitive realm. Some dogs, dubbed “Gifted Word Learner” dogs, have showcased the rare knack of learning and recalling dozens of object names, hinting at a mental representation akin to human cognition.


However, lingering questions persisted regarding the depth and nature of these mental representations. Do dogs fashion intricate sensory images of the objects they encounter? How do various senses contribute to their comprehension and recollection of these objects? Previous research provided glimpses into the sensory modalities dogs might employ, such as vision and olfaction, to identify their targets. Observations revealed that while dogs might rely on sight to discern objects under well-lit conditions, they would resort to olfactory cues when visual input was absent.


Motivated by these revelations, researchers from the Family Dog Project endeavored to delve deeper into the sensory integration processes in dogs’ brains. They sought to ascertain if typical family dogs, not just the exceptionally gifted ones, utilize multiple senses to craft these mental images and how these images aid in object identification under varied sensory circumstances. The researchers conducted two experiments.


The first experiment probed into the sensory modalities dogs employ to recognize and retrieve a familiar toy amidst varying light conditions. The study enlisted 14 dogs, comprising 10 typical family dogs and 3 Gifted Word Learner dogs.

Initially, each dog underwent training to fetch a specific toy from a selection of distractors. This training involved the dog’s owner engaging with the designated “target” toy while encouraging the dog with treats and praise to select this toy over others. This phase aimed to forge a mental link between the toy and its reward. Subsequently, the experiment tested the dogs’ ability to recall and select this toy under two scenarios: with lights on (light condition) and with lights off (dark condition).

In both conditions, the toys were placed in a room separate from where the dog and its owner were located. The owners then instructed their dogs to fetch the designated toy. Researchers observed the dogs’ proficiency in locating the correct toy, documenting the time taken and the sensory cues—visual or olfactory—utilized to locate it.

The results unveiled that all dogs adeptly retrieved the toy in both illuminated and dim settings, albeit exhibiting quicker retrieval with illuminated surroundings, indicative of a predominant reliance on visual cues. Nevertheless, in darkness, dogs displayed a notable surge in sniffing duration, suggesting a transition to olfactory cues in the absence of visual stimuli.

These findings suggest that dogs possess the capacity to employ multiple senses in constructing a comprehensive understanding of their surroundings. They adapt their sensory reliance based on available sensory input, underscoring a flexible cognitive mechanism.

The second experiment delved specifically into the cognitive processes of Gifted Word Learner dogs, scrutinizing how these dogs recollect and seek out toys using verbal cues amidst varying sensory conditions. This experiment featured the three Gifted Word Learner dogs from Experiment 1, alongside an additional female Border Collie.

In this experiment, each dog underwent testing in familiar settings—either their homes or a familiar laboratory environment—to ensure comfort and mitigate extraneous stress factors that could influence behavior. The setup mirrored that of Experiment 1 but tailored to suit each dog’s familiar milieu. The experiment leveraged the dogs’ existing repertoire of named toys, with each dog possessing a collection of familiar toys they had previously demonstrated the ability to identify by name.

The procedure was straightforward: the owner instructed the dog to retrieve a specific toy by name, both in a lit environment (light condition) and complete darkness (dark condition). The objective was to assess whether the dogs could rely on their multi-sensory mental images of the toys to locate them devoid of visual cues. Analogous to Experiment 1, the toys were positioned in a separate room, and the dogs navigated to this room to select the correct toy.

The Gifted Word Learner dogs adeptly retrieved the designated toys by name in both light and dark conditions, evincing no significant variance in success rates between the two scenarios. This observation suggests that the verbal label of a toy triggers the recollection of a robust multi-sensory mental representation of the toy, upon which the dogs can rely even in the absence of visual stimuli.

Moreover, the experiment revealed that while the dogs spent more time searching in darkness, indicative of heightened effort required to locate the toys sans visual cues, they nonetheless performed proficiently. The prolonged search duration in darkness correlated with escalated sniffing behaviors, underscoring a transition to olfactory cues in the absence of visual stimuli.

While illuminating, the study has its constraints. The sample size was relatively modest, and the study encompassed only a few dog breeds. Future research endeavors could encompass a broader spectrum of breeds and larger sample sizes to corroborate these findings. Additionally, delving into how dogs leverage other senses like hearing and touch in object identification could furnish deeper insights into canine cognition.

Nevertheless, the study furnishes compelling evidence that dogs, akin to humans, cultivate intricate sensory representations of the objects in their milieu. While Gifted Word Learner dogs may epitomize the upper echelon of canine intelligence, typical family dogs also harbor the ability to perceive and recollect their environment in a rich, multi-sensory manner.

The study, titled “Multisensory Mental Representation of Objects in Typical and Gifted Word Learner Dogs,” was authored by Shany Dror, Andrea Sommese, Ádám Miklósi, Andrea Temesi, and Claudia Fugazza.


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