You probably have wondered from time to time what your dog is thinking about when she sits quietly by the side of your chair, or lies on her favorite doormat outside the patio door. A lot of studies have been done about dog behavior and emotions. But more research needs to be done to figure out what dogs actually think about.
Since dogs tend to live mostly in the present moment, we can probably assume that they are thinking about what is happening right now as they sit and take in their immediate surroundings. If you patiently watch them, you will be able to follow their train of thought and their reaction to what is going on around them.
Dogs Pay a Lot of Attention to What is Happening in the Moment
I can’t tell you how many times I have been concerned about my dog who seemed to be sad or disappointed that I was not playing with her only to be very surprised. As I reached over to comfort her, she would suddenly lunge off of the sofa and out her doggie door barking at some sound or critter in our yard. What I mistook for sadness, was simply her concentration on something that was going on outside.
Since dogs do not have the facial muscles to express what they may be feeling, we have to guess. We can also interpret their body language, like happily dancing around before dinner or wagging their tail when excited about something.
Yet, what do they actually think about, especially if they are just sitting quietly by our side?
Dogs Think About What They Need
Survival is the very first instinct. If a dog is hungry, she will be focused on food. She may be thinking that it is about dinner time and she should remind you. She may also be focused on what snacks she can find while at the park. When I take my two mixed breed dogs to the park, the one who has the more pug-like qualities spends a lot of time with her nose in the gutter. This is where people park their cars and they often leave a trail of food and food wrappers behind. Perfect place to pick up an extra snack!
Dogs are Always Alert to their Environment and the Possibility of Attack
Even though dogs need a lot more sleep than we do, they wake up a lot. Living out in the wilderness, packs of dogs would sleep close and on top of each other but could wake up in an instant. Dogs will hear and jump up at the slightest sound, snap of a twig, or smell of another critter who is not part of their pack. It always amazes me how fast my dogs can go from being sound asleep to jumping off the couch. They can suddenly crash through their doggie door to chase after some racoon or possum that happens to pass by our yard.
Dogs Focus on Other Dogs to Determine Whether They are Friend or Foe
We had a new neighbor who moved in a few months ago. My dogs spend a lot of time sniffing around the fence to check out who may be on the other side. Every time our neighbor’s dog, Nelson, goes out into his yard, my dogs go running out their doggie door to see what’s up. Even though they are getting used to Nelson living next door, they still need to announce that he is out in his yard.
So, I assume that they are just letting everyone around them know that there is another dog nearby. My dogs who are part cattle dog and pug are probably just sounding an alert to pay attention! Scientific American has an interesting article about the meaning of dog barks.
Your Dog Will Spend a Lot of Time Watching You to Determine What’s Next
My dogs stare at me a lot! Sometimes it is unsettling. But I came to realize that they are trying to determine what I might be doing next. They get especially focused on me around dinner time or when it is time for their daily walk. Also, if I have been working at my desk all day, they remind me that they are there. They need some attention. One dog will just sit next to me and stare and paw at me. The other will jump up and put her paws on my key board. Then she will knock it onto the floor, just in case I did not get the message!
Every time I pull my blue jeans out of the closet, my dogs get extremely interested. I always put my jeans on before I take them for a walk to the park. So that is a que for them. See my post about What Is Your Dog Trying to Tell You? for more about how our furry pals watch us and try to communicate with us.
Sometimes Dogs are Just Curious
One of the funniest things I saw my dogs do was watching a spot of reflected sunlight from their dog tags move around on the wall as they moved. It was hilarious! They tried to chase it and bark at it. Neither dog could figure out what it was and why it moved away from them each time they tried to catch it.
Another very endearing time, my dogs quietly watched a big beautiful monarch settle into my garden. Amazingly, they didn’t chase it. They simple focused and watched as it flitted around from plant to plant. They seemed very curious but without the need to chase or try to eat it.
When Dogs are Relaxing they May Just be Focused on the Present Moment
in the morning my dogs often enjoy lying quietly in the sun or sitting by my side. It seems they are just enjoying the morning after a good night’s sleep and a hardy breakfast. They seem to be taking in the sounds of early morning traffic and activity outside our home. Much to my annoyance, my peaceful quiet is broken by ear piercing yips and howls directed toward some noisy motorcycle. And we were having such a nice moment!
I suspect dogs do not have complex thoughts like humans. However, recent studies in which dogs are trained to voluntarily lie unrestricted in an MRI is impressive. See the post on iheart.com for more information about this. It seems to demonstrate that dogs do have more complex thoughts and emotions than we give them credit. So, when I see my dogs sitting outside on a nice spring day soaking up the sun, I bet they are thinking about a lot things.
They sniff, look around, flit their ears, and scan the area. It seems that they are thinking about every little noise or new smell. and consider whether it is a good, bad, or neutral thing. If they see someone walking their dog, that really gets them going! I don’t know if they want to chase the other dog, play with him, or simply announce they he is out there and close. If their barking turns into a howl, it is pretty clear they are not happy about it!
Dogs Pay Attention to What We are Feeling
Our Furry Friends Can Feel Empathy
Most dogs not only feel empathy but also sympathy. According to an article by Stanley Coren, PhD, Canine Empathy, dogs really do care about what we feel. They may not feel the full complexity of empathy as humans involving the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. More likely dogs experience what some call “emotional contagion”. Our dogs may not understand exactly what we are feeling. But they do get that we are sad or distressed and will react to us.
Dogs can also react this way to strangers. So, it is not just about protecting their owner for their own preservation. Dogs will try to comfort us by placing their head on our lap or bringing us their favorite toy as a way to comfort us. My dogs will sometimes lick me if they think I am upset about something. Then they might bring a sock toy as if to cheer me up by playing tug of war!
When You are Upset Your Dog Will Quickly Shift Focus
One time my partner and I got into a heated argument. Our Golden Retriever suddenly jumped up between us and whimpered. He had been watching us for quite some time and apparently decided it was time to intervene! Not only do dogs watch us and pay attention to what we are doing, they can sense our emotions. They know when we are stressed or upset. Since our dog’s care about us and their entire world hinges on us as their caregivers, our well being is important to them. And, like any critter who is attached to another, dogs seem to care what we feel.
My current rescue dogs and I love to all snuggle on the sofa together prior to bedtime. One night I reacted to some emotional scene in a Netflix show I was watching by jumping up and yelling. My two dog were fast asleep next to me. Alarmed, they both jumped up and just stared at me with wide, opened eyes and a quizzical look. I gently petted and reassured them and they soon settled down again for their evening snooze beside me. I tried to explain that all was ok and it was just the TV show. But, I am not sure how much of that conversation they actually understood. However, they did appreciate my calmer tones and peace was restored.
Your Dog is Probably Oblivious to You When All is Well
When all is well with you, your dog can simply relax and watch what is going on in his yard. He may not think about anything in particular other than what he is watching at the moment. And, even if he seems oblivious to you, he is probably still very much aware of your presence. But he is not distracted or concerned by what is going on with you when all things are calm.
But as soon as you speak in a loud or distressed tone, his attention will quickly shift to you. Rescue facilities always recommend that you keep everything calm and peaceful when you bring home a new adopted dog. This allows him to go about the business of checking out his new home and getting used to new schedules. It also allows him to get used to you as his new human parent without a lot of additional anxiety. Loud, angry, or distressed voices can be very unsettling for our canine friends. They have sensitive hearing and a keen awareness of others around them.
Like Us Our Dogs Prefer Harmony and Peace
Dogs do not like to be bored. But they also do not like to terrified or worried. As good human parents, we try our best to keep our dogs entertained with toys, walks, and quality interaction time. This is especially true for our rescue dogs, many of whom have had less than ideal situations prior to adoption.
But sometimes, like with us, our dogs prefer that dreamy middle ground when all is well, and there is nothing to worry about.
What can be better than snuggling up on comfy chair or sofa and just enjoying the peace of the moment? A lot can be said for simply sitting or lying quietly with a full belly and not a care in the world!