How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind

How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind

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by Stanley Coren

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It's been said that dogs personify all the virtues of humans without the vices. Henry James wrote that his dog was "most reasonable and well-mannered" and Plato that "a dog has the soul of a philosopher." Over the years, dogs have taught us many things: loyalty, courage, and to turn around three times before lying down. Yet even in the face of millennia of evidence of


It's been said that dogs personify all the virtues of humans without the vices. Henry James wrote that his dog was "most reasonable and well-mannered" and Plato that "a dog has the soul of a philosopher." Over the years, dogs have taught us many things: loyalty, courage, and to turn around three times before lying down. Yet even in the face of millennia of evidence of thoughtful dogs, there has been little systematic scientific study until recently of what is actually going on in the dog's mind, and some people even question whether dogs have the capacity for that which we call mind. In this long-anticipated new book, written in the vein of his enormously popular The Intelligence of Dogs and How to Speak Dog, Dr. Stanley Coren looks at both the heights of intellect and the depth of our misunderstanding of what goes on in a dog's mind.
A bestselling author, psychologist, and world-renowned expert on dog behavior and training, Dr. Coren is always at the forefront of discoveries about dogs. With his ever-entertaining, erudite style, he provides a fascinating picture of the way dogs interpret their world and their owners, how they solve problems, learn, and take in new information. Dr. Coren lets you see through a dog's eyes, hear through his ears, and even sense the world through a dog's nose, giving you the insight that you need to understand the silly, quirky, and apparently irrational behaviors that dogs demonstrate, as well as those stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity that they occasionally display. Along the way, How Dogs Think will answer the questions about which you have always wondered, including: Can dogs count? Do they have an appreciation of art or music? Can a dog learn how to do something by just watching another dog or even a person do it? Do dogs dream? What is the nature of dog personality? Which behaviors are prewired into your dog and which can you actually change? And, can dogs sense future earthquakes or detect cancer?
With information not widely known to lay people, this lively guide also provides practical advice and wisdom that allows owners to discover the best ways to teach dogs new things, why punishment doesn't work, how a dog can actually learn to love or to fear, and how to turn that new puppy into a "perfect," emotionally sound, inquisitive, happy, and obedient dog.
Combining solid science with numerous funny, informative anecdotes and firsthand observations -- all characterized by Dr. Coren's own searching intelligence and his (and sometimes his dogs') irrepressible sense of humor -- How Dogs Think shatters many common myths and misconceptions about our four-legged friends and reveals a wealth of surprises about their mental abilities and intellectual potential.

Editorial Reviews

Nicholas H. Dodman
"The thinking dog owner's guide to everything they ever wanted to know about their dog. Truths expanded, myths exposed, common sense prevailing, Dr. Coren tells it the way it is. Two dew claws up for this excellent book."
BVMS, MRCVS, DVA, Professor of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University; author of The Dog Who Loved Too Much and If Only They Could Speak

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Do dogs think? Do they have a mental picture of the world like humans do? Could we say that a dog is conscious and self-aware the way that people are? Do dogs have true emotions? Compared to humans, just how intelligent are dogs? If you ask those questions when you are in a room full of behavioral scientists and philosophers, you are bound to start a heated argument.

Despite the fact that paleontologists have proven that humans and dogs have lived together for at least 140 centuries, there are still many different viewpoints about the workings of a dog's mind, or even if a dog has a mind. For some people the dog is nothing but an unthinking, fur-covered, biological machine, while others consider dogs to be much like little people in fur coats.

Most owners of pet dogs feel that dogs have something like true intelligence and consciousness, although they suspect that dogs often fail to show it for some reason. This notion is captured in a folktale told in Zimbabwe which says that dogs are not only very clever but they even know how to speak. It is just that they choose not to. According to the story, the hero Nkhango made a deal with the dog Rukuba. If Rukuba stole some fire from the god Nyamurairi, people would be dog's friend forever. Dog kept his part of the bargain and gave people fire. Later Nkhango asked dog to help him hunt dangerous animals, stand guard, herd animals, and do other difficult jobs. Finally Nkhango decided that dog should be a messenger. This was too much for dog. After all, since dog had given people fire, he felt he should be allowed to just lay near it in comfort. Rukuba thought, "People will always be sending me here and there on errands because I am smart and can speak. But if I can't speak, then I can't be a messenger." From that day since, dogs have chosen not to speak.

Even educated and logical people sometimes have odd ideas about the mental capacities of dogs. This was demonstrated to me by a lawyer involved in one of the most public and controversial trials in U.S. history. The story of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, and the subsequent arrest and trial of the sports hero and actor O. J. Simpson, is generally well known. However, there was also a dog involved, an Akita named Kato, which was owned by Nicole. Kato entered the story because one of the neighbors heard the dog's agitated whining. It was then that the neighbor noticed there was blood on Kato's feet and thought that the dog was injured. As he went to return Kato to Nicole, the dog pulled in the direction of the garage. This was how the bodies were discovered. Many people felt that Kato had seen the murder and was trying to get help. One morning, while O. J. Simpson's trial was in progress, I received a phone call from a lawyer associated with the court proceedings. He offered me a lot of money to come to Los Angeles to meet with Kato and to see if I could get the dog to identify the murderer. I tried to explain that, in comparison with humans, dogs have a mental ability similar to that of a two-year-old child. I asked him if he would expect a human two-year-old, with no clear understanding of death and limited language ability, to be able to comment on an event that had occurred nine months earlier. "Look," he pleaded, "couldn't you just come down and interview the dog?" Forgetting that some lawyers lack a sense of humor, I quipped, "You mean something like getting him to bark once for 'yes' and twice for 'no'?" The amazed voice on the phone asked, "Could you do that?"

This book is my attempt to explain to the world (including that lawyer) how dogs think. To understand the canine mind requires that we know a lot about how dogs sense the world and the degree to which they have been genetically programmed to perform their doggy behaviors, as well as what and how dogs can learn and adapt their behavior to changing conditions. In the process of exploring this we will talk about many issues that are of interest to anyone who lives or interacts with dogs. We will learn about the personalities of various breeds of dogs and how early experiences can change their temperaments. We will also explore the changes that occur in the dog's mind as he matures and ages. Along the way we'll even consider some of the stranger questions that people ask about dogs: whether they have an artistic sense, can understand mathematics, have ESP, can sense future earthquakes, or can even detect cancer in humans. This is a book based upon some of the new and exciting scientific research that is beginning to give us a glimpse of the workings of that fur-covered mind. You may find some surprises here, such as some capacities and abilities you didn't know your dog had or some abilities you think he has which he does not. You may also find some ways to understand your dog better, to communicate more clearly with him, and to help shape his behaviors so that he fits into your life more comfortably. You will also find some interesting data and some fascinating stories about how dogs think and behave that you can use if you ever find yourself joining that argument in that room full of behavioral scientists and philosophers.

Finally, I must acknowledge that in many ways this book could not have been completed without the help and support of my clever and loving wife, Joan, who struggled her way through the early drafts.

Copyright © 2004 by SC Psychological Enterprises, Ltd.

What People are saying about this

Jon Katz
From our wisest and most knowledgeable chronicler of the dog psyche comes a book that tackles some of the questions every dog owner and lover asks obsessively: What do our dogs think? What do they know? Do they have personalities and ideas? Coren doesn't just raise this questions, he answers them as well. This is a seminal work, meticulously researched, highly readable, and essential for anyone who loves and lives with a dog.
author of A Dog Year; The New Work of Dogs; and Dogs of Bedlam Farm: An Adventure with Sixteen Sheep, Three Dogs, Two Donkeys, and Me
Marc Bekoff
How Dogs Think is a major contribution to the growing literature showing that dogs are thinking and feeling beings. Even if they don't think and feel as we do-and there's no reason to believe that they should-science sense along with common sense strongly support the view that dog smarts and dog emotions are highly evolved traits that are used in dog-dog encounters and that also underpin the strong and reciprocal social bonds that endure between humans and their canine friends. Agree or disagree with Coren's views, this book challenges skeptics to come clean and to pay attention to what is actually known about these fascinating creatures.
Professor of Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder; author of Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart and The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love (with Jane Goodall), and editor of the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior

Meet the Author

Stanley Coren an international authority on sidedness, is professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Born to Bark: My Adventures with an Irrepressible and Unforgettable Dog (2010), among other books.

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How Dogs Think: What the World Looks like to Them and Why They Act the Way They Do 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting read, I will admit I did put it down a few times but just to really let all of this "new information" settle in. A lot of these facts took me by surprise. In this book Stanley just solidifies that we would not be where we are today without the help and companionship from our canine friends. You will never look at your dog or any other dog for that matter the same way again. Our dogs deserve so much more than what we are able to give them. In conclusion, DOGS RULE!!! :)
The_Incompleat_Curmudgeon More than 1 year ago
Love your dog? Then you¿ll love this book, because it will help you to understand the world your dog lives in, and explains his reactions to that world.

Dogs have the same senses we do: touch, smell, vision, taste, and hearing. But they have these senses in different degrees than we do: their vision is limited, for example, while their sense of smell is far superior to ours. Stanley Coren is a

psychologist from a Canadian university, a dog owner, and a dog lover. He deftly shows us how dogs perceive the world, and goes on to describe how they process and act upon the information their senses give them.

Coren¿s style has none of the stuffiness we might expect from an academic. He writes clearly and understandably, giving evidence and drawing conclusions that make sense. Anecdotes emphasize his points without getting in the way.

How Dogs Think is a fascinating read that provides a window on the mind of man¿s best friend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank od this book was invented don't know what to do with out it
myacsm More than 1 year ago
i looooved this book. i recommend it to everyone. if you love your dog, you should read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a fun and interesting book! I have many stories of my dogs as well. I have always known how special they are! Now I have proof by someone else!
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