Over the past few years, doggie fMRIs have been one of the biggest advancements in helping researchers discover our canine friend's cognition, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) takes pictures of the brain and shows which parts "light up" through external stimuli. Since dogs are highly trainable, they make great candidates for the MRI machine. Nestle Purina scientist, Ragen McGowan who specializes in dog cognition, has learned a lot from using these machines. The MRI detects changes in blood flow in the dog and uses that to measure brain activity. In a study completed in 2015, McGowan discovered that a human's presence leads to increased blood flow in the dog's eyes, ears, and paws which means that the dog is excited. Science has shown that when humans pet an animal they lower their blood pressure, baseline heart rate, and even their cholesterol which translates into lower stress and less anxiety. But have you ever wondered what happens to the dog? It turns out that they benefit in nearly the same ways. When shelter dogs were petted for 15 minutes, their heart rate decreased and they became less stressful overall. Another study using the fMRI shows that not only do dogs recognize human emotions...they can tell the difference between happy faces and sad faces...they respond differently to them as well.
Animal psychologists have discovered that dog intelligence is toughly the same as that of a two or two-and-a-half year old human child. They can understand up to 250 words and gestures. What's even more amazing is that a study done in 2009 shows that dogs can actually count low numbers, up to five, and are capable of doing simple math. You probably don't need science to tell you this, especially if you're a dog owner who's petted another dog, but dogs do experience jealousy. And to top it all off, they actually try their best to find a way to "handle" the thing that's taking their parent's attention away from them! So if they have to do something that will force the attention back to them, they will do it.
Your canine companion can also feel something akin to empathy, even when it's towards someone other than you. Is it genuine empathy? Scientists won't go so far as to call it that but prefer to label it as "emotional contagion." But whatever you call it, it sure looks like empathy! Yet another study has discovered that dogs "eavesdrop" on human interactions. They can then assess who is mean to their owner and who is friendly. Dogs can also follow their human's gaze.
Research is just beginning to find out exactly how much dogs really know. They've only reached the tip of the iceberg. The studies were done on dog cognition thus far have shown us one big thing...that humans know far less about a dog's brain than was previously thought. Those of you who own a dog probably already suspected most of these things, but it's good to know that science can now back up your claims.
As for me, I'm practicing my "bark" so I can better communicate with my doggie friends.