How Do Dogs Think Without Language?

How Do Dogs Think Without Language

Since dogs are not humans, they cannot think like humans.

Dogs discover their outside world through what is called classical conditioning.


Like humans, dogs can think albeit differently.

While human beings use words and gestures to communicate, dogs rely on;

  • Scent cues
  • Visual cues
  • Sound cues


Scent cues

Dogs have a strong sense of smell that is 10,000 times better than ours.

What’s more, dogs can move their nostrils individually to determine where the scent is coming from.

Interestingly, dogs can catch scent with their tongues too.

They direct the scent to the upper part of their mouth where the olfactory sensory neurons are located.

These neurons turn the scent into signals that are sent to the brain.

The brain interprets this signal and influences how a dog responds to the registered scent..

A dog knows how to think and act based on how they process scent.

Sniffing at another dog’s rear passes the message that “I am friendly”.

The scent of kibble means lunchtime while the scent of your dirty laundry means knowing you personally.

Dogs can detect cancer cells with their powerful noses too. Scent is to a dog what words are to humans.



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Visual cues

Dogs use visual cues to understand humans. It is easier for a dog to learn a hand gesture than a spoken phrase. For instance

  • Lowering your hand stretched out towards your pup means you want to feed him a treat.
  • Clapping your hands or tapping your legs could be a cue for your dog to come closer
  • A long hard stare could mean you are unhappy thus a dog will be cautious about approaching you

Dogs use visual cues to communicate with humans as well.

A dog will scratch at a door looking at the doorknob to mean he wants to go out.

Sniffing and pacing around a cupboard could mean he wants his kibble.

A golden retriever could bring a hand mitt to you when it is grooming time.


Sound cues

Dogs can decode sounds from objects as well as the tone of our voice.

  • When training a dog, the sound of a clicker signals time for a reward.
  • Speaking with a bellowing voice communicates anger to a dog
  • The sound of a doorbell excites a dog because it means his owner is home


A puppy that is not socialized to sounds will be fearful of loud noises like those from fireworks.

A dog may not know what ‘come here’ means.

But the cheerful tone of your voice when uttering those words compels them to come closer.

Whistling and snapping your fingers repeatedly also means ‘come here’.


Put everything together

dog reading books

Dogs do not learn scent, visual, and sound cues immediately.

They interpret these cues over time through what science calls classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning dictates that a repeated conditioning stimulus will produce a conditioned response.

For example, when a dog sees its owner holding a leash it knows it is going out for a walk.

The leash is the conditioning stimulus that produces the conditioned response which is the excitement to go out.


Scent, visual, and sound cues have to be repeated gradually for a dog to learn how to respond to them.

That is how dogs can think without using any language.


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A pet owner who loves to share useful facts and information about animals. For now, I write mostly about dogs and cats.