A new study found that dogs form a “multi-model mental image” of their toys.

When a dog is told to fetch a toy, what is going on in the dog's mind? According to a recent paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, these dogs store key sensory features about their toys and remember them when searching for the named toy.

The co-author said that understanding which senses dogs use while searching for a toy could reveal how they think about it. Olfaction or sight indicates that a dog knows how a toy smells or looks.

Dogs rely on vision and smell to find objects, according to prior studies. The authors say that few dogs can identify objects based on verbal labels. "Just like humans, GWL dogs recognize the labeled objects, or categories of objects, as stimuli they have already encountered, but they also identify them among other similarly familiar named objects, based on their verbal labels," the authors said. They wanted to find out if GWL dogs have a better ability to discriminate and recognize objects than typical dogs.

They did two different experiments to find out. There were 14 dogs and three of them were border collies. They knew the names of more than 20 dog toys, after participating in previous studies. Most of the dogs were tested in the lab while three were tested at home. The experimenter and the dog's owner were standing together. There were dog toys in the next room. Heavy curtains separated the rooms from each other. The windows had nylon sheets covering them.

This very good boy named Max happily poses with a collection of toys.
Enlarge / This very good boy named Max happily poses with a collection of toys.

All the dogs had the same 10 toys, but they were different shapes, colors, and materials. The experimenter divided the toys into two sets and then randomly picked a toy from each set to be the target toy. Four of the toys weretractor objects. The owner used a target toy to play with their dog and commanded the dog to retrieve it. The dog got a reward when it retrieved the toy.

The dogs were tested in both light and dark conditions with the corridor and toy room lights off. They were asked 10 times to get the target toy from among the other toys in the set. Between each iteration, the toys were shuffled. The researchers recorded not only toy selection and retrieval, but also searching and sniffing behavior, as well as everything else that was recorded.

The same setup and location was used for the second experiment, but only three GWL dogs were tested. The four knew the names of the toys that were scattered on the floor. The dogs were not able to rely on familiarity with the toys to retrieve the toy they were looking for. Each owner told their dog to get the toy. The dog was given a reward if it retrieved the right toy. The dogs were tested in both light and darkness.


The dogs in the first experiment were able to pick out the toys in both light and dark conditions, even though it took them longer to find the toys in the dark. Even though dogs have an excellent sense of smell, most rely on visual signals. The dogs were able to find the toy in the dark by sniffing more frequently.

When dogs play with toys, they record their features using multiple senses, creating a multistory mental image. When the conditions call for it, dogs can incorporate other senses, most notably smell.

The authors concluded that the construction of multisensory mental representations can be done by dogs. Hearing the objects' verbal labels as they perform complex object recognition tasks evokes a memory of the multisensory representation.

The book is called Animal Cognition. About DOIs is a book by the same name.

The photo is by Cooper Photo.