What is my Dog Thinking?

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

What is my dog thinking? The truth is none of us knows. Period. I don’t even know what my fellow humans are thinking most of the time. And seriously, how many times have we all said to ourselves, what was I thinking? Even on good days it’s really hard to crack the code of homo sapiens, and we share written and spoken languages. The chances of ever knowing what a dog is thinking are zero.

Here’s where it gets tricky. We think we know. Clients tell me all the time they know what their dogs are thinking. Why? Because we humans hate an incomplete story. We hook on to one or two bits of information, usually a causal observation of what our dog is doing, and we fill in all the gaps. We create the story of what our dog is thinking. And, because the story was born of our own incomplete experience and the experience of our own complete thoughts, we perceive it as fact. Our brain believes, sometimes rigidly, what it knowns – even, in fact, when it does not.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called this natural human process “fast thinking.” It’s how we all quickly piece together information for decision making. The process is evolutionarily adaptive when it comes to safety and survival. Movement – dinner – aim -shoot. See a person – enemy – hide – fight. It even works well for us in modern times, in traffic for instance. Speeder – unsafe – avoid. We need to be able to create quick narratives for decision making with limited fast-moving information. Compare this to “slow thinking” which literally involves our slowing down, assessing all the information we have and that we don’t have, and making a logical conclusion. We do have that ability. Trouble is we don’t always take the time to use it.

Kahneman and Tversky coined the term behavioral economics (you might have heard of that). After Tversky’s death, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics. What they discovered, in short, was that “fast thinking,” though useful sometimes, often leads us to make mistakes. The answer to the question what was I thinking becomes I don’t know but it was fast and it was wrong. Here’s a harmless example from my own life. Buzzing insect – wasp! – flail hands and run. It was a June Bug.  “Fast thinking” because of it’s early roots in survival is almost always hooked to emotion (Think: fear, desire, exhilaration). Fast thinking over time develops biases – the quick decisions we habitually make (unconsciously) about our fellow humans based on how they look. It’s also why we are notorious for making decisions with apparent pay-offs in the moment even though the long-term effects are disastrous (e.g. buying the hot sports cars instead of saving for retirement). Politicians and marketers know how hack our “fast thinking” and exploit our biases and desires. Believe it or not, some dog trainers do too.

What is your dog thinking? Disreputable trainers will tell you. It will come with just a few facts (he’s growling and showing his teeth). Then they will fill in all the gaps to form a concise memorable story that our “fast thinking” brain will love. He thinks he’s dominant, or He doesn’t respect you or He’s trying to be pack leader.  Add to this that we might have already heard that story from our neighbor or our Uncle Charlie.  Our fast thinking brain shores up the narrative with more non-facts. That’s called confirmation bias. It becomes fact to us because it came from our own brain and was then echoed by others. Trouble is, we still have no idea what our dog is thinking. And what does dominant dog really mean (the definitions are as varied as they are vague. And, do dogs actually form pack hierarchies (the evidence suggests they do not)? And yet, it’s hard to let go of short, simple, fast thinking explanations to the point that we might actually push back when presented with real verifiable facts. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. Welcome to the most advanced brain on the planet.

We aren’t doomed, however. At least I don’t think so. We all have the ability to slow down, check and recheck our observations, assess facts, look at alternative explanations. When it comes to our dogs I suggest this. Focus on what your dog is doing more than what you think he is thinking. Disconnect from the story; connect to the present moment with your dog. You are communicating. Your actions (behavior) influence his actions (behavior) and back the other way. People often ask who’s training whom. My answer is you and he are both teaching and learning. Enjoy this moment, this time to set aside troubling thoughts, this time to simply explore and learn with your dog. It may not be the story you thought it was. But, it is more profound than most prose and as inspiring as any poem.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.