Ok, clearly there is no answer to this one, as we can only speculate. But I'm curious for people's feedback, and here's what got me wondering:

Jack knows the names of all his toys. When we bring a new one home, we say the name clearly two or three times, throw it for him, and say "Get (name of new toy)!" and that's how he learns the names of something new. The way we trained him to realize that things have names was a bit more involved, but now that he knows the concept, naming new objects is easy.

When he looks bored, sometimes I'll send him searching for a toy I haven't seen in awhile. So, I might say "Jack, where's Ultra Ball?" with an emphasis on the questioning tone of voice. The hunt is on, and he'll check his toy basket, behind the door, under some shelves, in his crate, until he finds the object. He trots around with a very matter-of-fact look on his face, and I assume that he is looking the way I would look: that is, he has a mental image of "Ultra Ball" in his head and is muttering some doggy version of "Where IS Ultra Ball? Where did I leave it? Is it behind here? Under here? Back there?" the whole time.

But sometimes, in talking to my dog the way one will, I might ask "Where is..." when I am looking for something of my own, something that he does not know the name of. And off he toddles, looking just as intently as he does for his own toys, trying to find I'm-not-sure-what.

Just now, I was wondering where the cat was, and I said "Jack, where is Kitty Boo?" (the cat's name is Boo, but somehow we've changed it to Kitty Boo without even realizing it).

Off went Jack, that same look on his face, but clearly he wasn't looking for the cat because he walked right by her. He checked behind the door, behind the sink, under the hall table, in the dining room, by his crate. The longer he looks, the more intent he gets. To my human brain, I assume he's holding a picture in his head of an object, and looking for it.

But watching his behavior, I now wonder if the opposite is true: he knows that "Get xyz" means I want an object. But maybe until he SEES the object, he does not know what he's looking for? That is, if I say "Get tennis ball" perhaps he does not hold a picture of tennis ball in his head, but as he sees objects, he labels them and dismisses them as "not tennis ball" until he sees the one that triggers the "Tennis ball!" response in his brain. That is, he knows it when he sees it, but until he sees it he cannot picture it.

Not sure if I'm making sense, but the fact that he will look just as thoroughly for something that he has no concept of as for something he "knows" the name of puzzles me. And just to clarify, he has never actually come back with an object when I unintentionally send him on the hunt for something he does not know.

Anyone have any insights on those doggy brain cells to enlighten me?

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Noodles does the exact same thing. He knows the name of every single one of his toys and we test him every day to make sure he knows the name. We will ask him where a certain toy is at and he will look right around where he is sitting and if it isn't in plain sight, he will run upstairs to find his toy. He has only come back with the wrong toy a couple of times, but it usually is the correct toy. He just got a new stuffed duck and we call it duckie...he already knows the name of that toy. It amazes me how much they know. He does the same thing with certain family members...he knows the difference between Grammie, Gramps, Uncle Jer and Aunt Kari because he sees them quite often.
Jack won't bring back the wrong one, but sometimes if it's a toy he doesn't want he just pokes it with his nose as if to say "There it is if you want it" and wanders off!
One question, does he know what Kitty Boo is?

Effectively you are giving him an action (verb) and an the object (noun). Maybe he knows them separately, but can't remember them both when the two are put together. For example, he may know that the word "Kitty Boo" is the fuzzy animal, and he may know the action "where is the..." means to look for something. But he may be forgetting the object he is looking for. Many young children, when given a two step command like, "get the doll and your blanket", will remember the blanket but forget the doll. So maybe he is remembering to look around, but forgets that he is looking for something.

The other idea is that he may not have a firm grasp of the names. When I taught kindergarten, I would check to see if the children knew all their colors each grading period. Sometimes they would miss colors that they seemed to know the week before. Child development says that they were still learning the names, they had not securely fixed them in their memories.

Lastly, dogs hear a lot of blah, blah, blahs in their life; but they have no idea what the majority of language is saying. So, "Can you go find your favorite ultra ball, " sounds like, "Blah, blah, blah FIND blah, blah, ULTRA BALL." So he finds the ball. But if he doesn't understand what a "Kitty Boo" is and you tell him, "Can you find Kitty Boo?" then he hears, " "Blah, blah, FIND, blah, blah." So, being a good dog, he does the only thing you effectively told him to do - to look for something. It makes me wonder, do dogs know that you told them to look for something and they know that they didn't understand the word to look for? Or do they just think we tell them to look around for nothing?
No, I didn't expect him to get the cat as we've never "named" the cat for him, using the process by which we "name" other toys. He is very solid on toy names and gets the correct toy 100% of the time, unless it's truly gone missing and can't be found at all. He's done this for several years.

What is funny is his behavior of looking exactly the same way he looks when he knows what he is looking for, which makes me think that the thought process is different than ours. If I am looking for my keys, I hold a picture of my keys in my head before I start the search. If my husband said "Get the felagamabob" I would look at him and say "The what?" and wouldn't start a search at all, not knowing what I was looking for. Apparently the dog's thought process is not the same as ours.

To relieve his stress in not finding whatever, I did redirect him to look for something he knew, so we ended up with a happy dog.
Duncan knows a few of his toys. Like piggie, raf (a giraffe), nellie (a latex elephant) and of course, Kong. Those are his favorite things.

I imagine they develop a mental picture of the item in their head, and like you said, go through a "thats not it, that's not it, that's not it, there it is!" process.

Duncan knows who Lissie is, our cat, and will looke for her when we say where's Lissie. He'll come back, bark and take us to her and usually bumps her with his nose.
I always thought he had a mental picture in his head, too, but now I think he doesn't. I think he has more of a "I'll know it when I see it" framework. Besides looking for non-existent things, the other thing that made me reach this conclusion is this:

If he is, say, chewing on his bone, drops it can comes and huffs at me to play and I can't play right then, I will say "Jack, go get your bone!" He just dropped it, it's behind him, but the look on his face is "Bone! There's an idea!" and he starts the search in front of him, then moves through the rooms and loops back around and when he sees the bone, he THEN has his "Eureka!" moment.

It makes me think there is no mental image. He knows he's meant to look, he has no picture of any objects in his head but is looking for, say, "Bone." He looks at items, sees the physical item, and goes "Piggy, not bone. Loop, not bone. Tennis ball, not bone. Ball-in-ball, not bone. Bone, BONE!!" Something like that.

In other words, when he sees something, he knows the name, but when he hears the name, he doesn't "see" it in his head.

I could be totally wrong, of course. :-)
Hmmmmm, well I'm not exactly sure. But your post Beth, is certainly thought provoking!! LOL!!

Soffie, seems to know the names of things but will only go look for them when it is convenient for her. Griffyn, on the other hand could care less!! They both know each other. But Soffie is more apt to go get Griffyn when I ask her to (she's the "herder" of the two) While Griffyn will just sort of look her way.... as if to say "she's right there, you silly human!".

But.... they both know when it's time for a walk, time for their breakfast and dinnertime (we better not be one minute late or Soffie starts banging her dish) They automatically put themselves up in their crates at our meal times. And they know the difference between when they get to come with us in the car, or when they are staying home. Oh, and Soffie reads my mind!! Really!!!

So, I wonder if much of what they seem to know is a combination of understanding what is being said, picking up physical queues, as well as just plain old conditioning. What ever it is .... their response and reaction is a great pleasure to watch!
Jack is my clever dog. He'll lay around grumbling about 6:30 if we didn't feed him. He puts himself to bed if we are staying up late and huffs from his crate to remind us we are late. They are so smart and so perceptive that it's easy to imagine that they are just like us, but not quite as smart (or in some ways, of course, smarter). But perhaps their furry little brains follow totally different routes to reach what we consider understanding.
Leave it to you Gwynnie!!! Now it all makes perfect sense!!!
I was about to post about Rico! John is always one step ahead of me.
One of the most interesting things about dog intelligence and understanding is that fact that we've sculpted this kind of intelligence and understanding. To make dogs more able to help us, we've shaped them to be smart in the same ways we are.
One of the ways that Rico is special is that he can figure out a new word the first time, and relate words that he knows. Example, he knows what fetch is, he knows what a ball is, so he knows to fetch the ball. He knows what hold is, and he knows what bone is, so he knows to hold the bone, and he knows that those things arent one word but a series of commands.
It had occurred to us that Jack might just be looking for a "new" toy and, not finding any, thinks he might have just missed it.

We have a plan to test this hypothesis by buying something new, bringing it in the house when he's out, putting it behind a door, sending him looking and seeing if he grabs it. The only problem with using that as a test is that the novelty aspect may very well cause him to grab the new toy, regardless. So even if I, say, got him a new toy and sent him to get an existing one to "test" him, he might know darn well he's getting the wrong item, but choose it anyway because it's new and new is exciting.

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