5 Ways a Dog’s Mind is Tragically More Complex Than We Know

Sadly, dogs don’t just think about sticks and znoozles
5 Ways a Dog’s Mind is Tragically More Complex Than We Know

Dogs, we believe, are sweet and dumb. They have no idea what’s going on, leaving them in ignorant bliss. Want to make a dog happy? Suddenly crouch and start hopping, and watch them swell with excitement. Invite a dog into the car with you? It has no way of understanding you’re driving the car, it just thinks the car will whisk you both someplace and it’s up for the adventure. What goes through a dog’s head all day? Just images of snacks and snoozles, surely. 

Don’t be so sure about that. While dogs aren’t quite as advanced as humans, they do have brains, and those brains are capable of all sorts of complex mental conditions. 

Dogs Retreat Into Deep Sleep to Escape the Day’s Horrors

Do dogs stay up at night, mulling regrets? Such was the question under investigation a couple years back by Hungarian scientists, who sought the answer by giving a collection of dogs good experiences and bad experiences each. After these experiences, the dogs could sleep, and the scientists would stick electrodes to their heads to measure their sleep phases. Don’t worry, these were the sort of electrodes that detect brain waves, not the kind that deliver electric shocks. 

canine non-invasive polysomnography

Physiology & Behavior

It’s called canine non-invasive polysomnography.

For the good experiences, the scientists and dogs engaged in “petting and ball play,” and while that may sound deeply sexual, we urge you to consider the phrase in context. The bad experiences were more complicated. They couldn’t just bring out whips and chains or switch to the other kind of electrodes. For the sake of what they were studying, they had to trigger emotional distress in the dogs without any physical pain.

They tried what’s known as negative social interaction (NSI). This started with the owner tying the dog somewhere with a leash and leaving without saying goodbye. Then the owner would return but would neglect to look at the dog. The scientist would look at the dog but would maintain a still face, refusing to respond to the dog in any way. Honestly, electrocution sounds like it might have been less torturous than this. 

As predicted, the type of social interaction significantly affected the sort of sleep the dogs experienced. However, the change was the exact opposite of what the scientists hypothesized. Humans have longer, deeper REM sleep after positive social interactions. Dogs experience the same thing after negative social interactions. So, when you see a dog sleeping deeply, maybe that sight shouldn’t warm your heart. Maybe that shows the dog has been suffering hardest. 

Post-Partum Doggie Depression

Humans have a few reasons they might feel depressed after giving birth. Knowing you’re stuck with a child for the foreseeable future should make anyone depressed. Arguably, the only reason some parents aren’t depressed is some kind of psychosis that prevents them from understanding their situation. Luckily for dogs, they never understand their situation, and even if they did, their offspring present few long-tern responsibilities. A litter of puppies can surely only be a cause for celebration. 

Unfortunately, if you ask “doctors,” postpartum depression may have more to do with hormones than with a rational loathing toward children. And while dogs lack rational hatred, they do have hormones. After birth, a dog’s progesterone and prolactin levels plummet, and dopamine resultantly goes down as well. Sometimes, female canines get postpartum depression. Symptoms include heavy sleep, physical distress and the otherwise inexplicable choice to not play with her puppies. 

dog nursing

Oldsingerman20/Wiki Commons

“I didn’t ask for this.”

There are drugs a vet can prescribe to treat this — amitriptyline, Doxepin and fluoxetine. Other treatments exist as well, and they sound more fun for everyone. Ther primary one: cuddle your dog. You can also play games with her or play music. “Reggae or soft rock” is recommended, either because experiments support their effectiveness or because that’s just what doctors are into. 

Dog Autism

“Your dog looks like it’s autistic” is not considered an appropriate thing to say when visiting a dog owner’s home. However, some dogs do experience their species’ equivalent of autism. It’s called canine dysfunctional behavior (CDB), which sounds like a blanket term covering every kind of bad dog but is narrower than that. It includes such symptoms as the inability to socialize, irrational fear and swiftly getting overstimulated. These aren’t occasional behaviors — the dog will exhibit them from birth.

Small skeptical dog

Michelle Tresemer/Unsplash

If it newly experiences these, that may be doggy dementia, a whole other thing.

Another symptom: repetitive behaviors. For example, a dog with CDB might compulsive chase its tail. “But dogs chase their tails all time!” you say. But dogs don’t really do it all the time, and if this tail chasing sends the dog into a trance, or the dog starts associating tail chasing with sex, that may be compulsive behavior. That’s right, you might have heard that “chasing tail” means trying to get laid, but if someone truly confuses the two, that makes them a dog and autistic.

Intelligent Disobedience

Dogs don’t really follow the rules the way people do — or break the rules the way people do. You ever see a dog looking guilty? As far as we’ve been able to determine, it’s not really feeling guilt when it looks like that. It’s expressing fear. It associates certain behavior with being scolded, and it doesn’t enjoy that, but that’s different from feeling moral responsibility. Other times, when a dog follows your instructions, that means you conditioned certain behavior out of it, not that you taught it to obey. You might even say “obedience” is never the right word to use with a dog. 

petting dog

Mickael Gresset

He does not know the true meaning of what it is to be a good boy. 

At least, that’s one perspective. When training dogs, we actually we do find it convenient to characterize their behavior as obedient or disobedient, and sometimes, training involves teaching a dog to disobey.

A visually impaired dog owner will cue their dog to perform various tasks. For example, they’ll prompt the dog to lead them across the street. Obedience means walking forward onto that street — possibly into the path of an oncoming car. For this reason, the dog must consider the dangers of fulfilling this demand and must be trained to disobey when necessary. This mechanism is called intelligent disobedience. It’s why, when dogs are tried in war tribunals, they are not allowed to cite “just following orders” as a defense. 


Okay, we weren’t being serious about dogs being tried for war crimes. But dogs do take part in war, and we all love stories of their heroics in the field. But what happens after the dogs come home? Are they scarred by their experiences, like the Chihuahua in that one meme? 

PTSD Chihuahua


Some definitely are. One stat floating around says that 5 percent of military dogs experience PTSD afterward. Another stat says, no, actually 5 percent of all dogs experience PTSD, 5 percent minimum, with 5 to 17 percent being the possible range. Dogs who got shot at on the battlefield went through a lot of course, but really, plenty of dogs in general have gone through a lot. 

A dog can get a prescription for PTSD meds from a vet — meaning a veterinarian, not a veteran; the dog is the veteran. Yes, dogs take beta blockers and antidepressants. Another form of therapy is called systematic desensitization. If your dog reacts to loud noises, because of its history with bombs or tornados, you should play loud noises for it, and reward it with food. In time, the positive associations will outweigh the fading negative ones. You may even manage this same technique on dogs without PTSD. Dribble enough bacon on the floor as you clean, and one day, your dog will no longer fear the vacuum. One day, it will welcome it. 

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