If you are like me, you really do not spend much time wondering about how your dog thinks or if it thinks at all. You are aware that certain things get your dog’s attention and other things make it behave in a certain way, but in all honesty, we rarely give much thought to the “thinking our dogs do.”
During a slow period of thinking on my own, I decided to do some research on dogs and their brainpower and discovered some interesting things that I would like to share with you.
Did you have any idea that a dog’s brain and spinal cord start to develop a few days after the sperm and egg meet? This development continues through the fetal stage and through the first year after birth. In the beginning the brain makes many more cells than it initially needs and will remodel itself during the first year, according to the environment the puppy is involved in.
The brain requires stimulation in order to develop and this is why “puppy socialization” is so important. If a puppy is exposed to people, new environments and other dogs in a positive manner the chances are, it will be smarter, more adaptable and develop a more sociable attitude toward people.
When a puppy is born its brain resembles a smaller version of an adult brain. But, as it is going through that first year of development outside the womb, it continues to change and refine itself according to the puppy’s experiences, and will continue to some extent, throughout the dog’s life.
There are many interesting parts that make up a dog’s brain, which is similar to ours. The cerebral cortex which is comprised of many hills and valleys, acts like the hard drive of a computer. Memories, associations and instincts are stored in the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is divided into five sections or lobes, which are:
- The olfactory lobe, located near the dog’s nose, this receives the scent and relays it to other parts of the brain.
- The frontal lobe sits behind the olfactory lobe and controls the dog’s emotions, reasoning, movement and vocalization. The frontal lobe makes the dog’s tail wag and is in charge of most of the things your dog does.
- The parietal lobe is found sitting behind the frontal lobe and responsible for such senses as touch, pain, taste, pressure and temperature. This particular function reminds your dog to run to the kitchen when it smells dinner cooking and practice looking very hungry.
- The temporal lobe is on the other side of the cerebral cortex and is in charge of hearing, memory, learning and meaning.
- The occipital lobe processes vision and allows your dog to recognize things. This lobe allows your dog to see the leash, so it will know it is going out for a walk.
Now this is not enough to get our dog up and running there is more to a dog’s brain, and so we will continue to learn what makes our dog work.
There is a cauliflower-shaped object that lies behind the cerebrum called the cerebellum this coordinates the dog’s movements and balance. A dog with an injured cerebellum will walk with jerky steps and its feet will be far apart in order to keep its balance.
Beneath the cerebrum is the brain’s relay center, this is where the messages from all the other sensory organs and the rest of the body come, before being sent to the appropriate part of the cerebral cortex. The basal ganglia and thalamus are what form this memory center, sort of like the random access memory (RAM) of a computer. A dog’s reaction to a circumstance can be transmitted to these to sites within a few thousandths of a second and be sent to the proper place and result in the correct reaction for the dog.
Next we find the parts that have the on/off switch in your dog’s brain the midbrain and the brain stem, these are like a computer’s central processing system. They determine whether or not your dog is awake or asleep and take care of all the bodily functions such as breathing, blood circulation and the beating of the heart.
Now there has to be a way for all this information to travel to all the parts of the brain and to do it quickly and there is. Neurons do the job and there are about 100 billion neurons in a dog’s brain. They are so small that 30,000 of them can fit on a head of a pin.
Neurons are polar, which means they have to ends each with a different function. One end is called the dendrite, this end gathers all the messages from the other neurons. These dendrites are attached to a neuronal body, where the cell’s life functions are taken care of. Protruding from the cell body is a thing called the axon, which transmits the signal to the next cell.
Neuron communicate with each other through neurotransmitters, a small molecule, that is secreted by the axon called a synapse, which in turn binds it to the dendrite of another neuron. Once it binds to the recipient neuron an electrical charge is developed and causes the signal to travel down the axon to cause the secretion of another neurotransmitter.
The nervous system uses a mixture of electrical and chemical signals that makes it incredibly fast, so fast your dog can feel the touch of a nail clipper and withdraw its paw, while you stand there wondering about the action.
Recent studies have shown that the neurons are not staid cells, but can actually shrink and disappear. This is how you can teach an old dog a new trick by reinforcing a new behavior, the old one will eventually disappear and the new behavior will take over.
For instance, if your dog has a bad habit of barking at the mailman, it is possible to teach your dog to go to specific location to get a treat every time the mailman comes. After a few times, the dog will automatically go to the location for a treat, when it sees the mailman. The neuron that saw the mailman and triggered the barking will eventually shrink and disappear.
This is called synaptic plasticity; it is the ability of the connection between two neurons to change in strength. The neurons are constantly signaling each other and through this exchange can remodel themselves, this is how learning occurs. It is the method in which old dogs learn new tricks and/or behaviors.
In case you did not know it, dogs are extremely smart and they have the ability to communicate not only with us, but also with other species. No other species is better at understanding human facial expressions and communicating to us through body language, than our canine friends are.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the extent, in which dogs can understand the human language. Some dogs understand and display knowledge of up to 200 words and have the ability to go directly to a toy or object when directed by a single word even after weeks of not hearing it.
A dog’s brain is a wondrous organ. It is the most active organ in the dog’s body and consumes over 20 percent of the oxygen in the blood. A dog’s brain is so soft you could cut it with a butter knife and yet, it works faster and is more complex, than the world’s most powerful computer.
In another article, I am going to venture into the world of canine emotions, it is said that dog’s do not have emotions, however, I beg to differ, so please join me in part two of “Thinking – How Do Dogs Do it.”