What exactly goes on inside your dog's head? Researchers are trying to find out

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By Amy Eley

Dogs are known as man's best friend, but really we have no idea what our canine companions are thinking. A group of researchers, however, is determined to find out.

Psychologist Laurie Santos is the head of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, where she and other researchers are working to better understand dogs' thought processes.

“Really the purpose of the center is to figure out what’s going on inside dogs’ heads, “ she told TODAY. “They are guys that live with us. They grow up with us. We share our homes and our families with them and yet scientifically, we don’t know that much about how dogs think.”

At the Canine Cognition Center, researchers study whether dogs pick up on human social cues, how a dog makes decisions and, in one current study, Santos and her team are acting out puppet shows to find out whether or not dogs are moral.

In one scene, a puppet rat helps a puppet hedgehog up a hill. In another scene, the puppet rat pushes the puppet hedgehog down. After watching the situations play out twice, the dog is given a choice to check out the nice or the mean puppet rat.

“This exact study has been done with human infants,” Santos said. “What you find is that they can tell the difference between the mean puppet and the nice puppet, and they prefer to interact with the nice puppet.”

While Santos and her team of researchers continue their work to crack the canine code, she says that there is one principle that remains consistent: Dogs are always observing humans.

“Dogs are just so attuned to what we do,” she said. “They’re watching our subtle behaviors. They’re paying attention to what we pay attention to, and this might be the key to their success.”