Can Dogs Count?

Ever wonder how smart your dog truly is? He's always up for a walk or a game of Frisbee, loves treats and giving you sloppy kisses, but what's going on in his mind? When you live with a dog, you know she's smart. In fact, you may think your dog is the most intelligent dog ever. But did you know she can count! Yes, as in 1, 2, 3! You may wonder what numerosity, quantitative thinking and mathematics have to do with your best friend, but surprisingly, studies show that dogs have the uncanny ability not only to count but also to do the math. Go figure!

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Are dogs capable of quantitative reasoning?

While some people don't believe dogs are capable of quantitative thinking, others are busy conducting research that reveals dogs are smarter than previously given credit. In humans, quantitative reasoning is the application of mathematical concepts and skills to solve real-world problems.

One of the more rigorous aspects of quantitative reasoning is the judgment of numerosity, which is the ability to compare two groups of items. For example, we see a parking lot full of cars and one beside it with few cars, and we know instinctively without counting that one lot has more cars than the other. Noted psychologist Stanley Coren, author of "The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the Thoughts, Emotions, and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions" has reviewed numerous studies of dog intelligence. He says in an interview, "Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought."

In one of the tests of numerosity in dogs, experimenters put out two piles of kibble, one with two pieces, the other with 10 pieces. When the dog runs to the 10-piece pile, it suggests he may have made the decision based on his judgment of how many pieces were in the pile, which shows the ability to judge numerosity. In a laboratory setting, dogs learn to press a panel with more or fewer dots painted on it and get a food reward, which is proof they understand the concept of numerosity.

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Several different animal species have tested in this concept with less research in dogs. In a study conducted by Krista Macpherson and William A. Roberts, designed for chimpanzees and adapted to 27 domestic dogs, subjects watched as different quantities of food were sequentially dropped into each of two bowls. The dogs could select and eat the contents of one of the bowls with the expectation they would choose to eat the most food. The dogs' performance did not surpass chance across all other ratios. But in the second experiment with a single rough collie subject, nonfood stimuli were used in place of the treats on a magnetic board. The collie named Sedona got a reward when she chose the board with the most items, and when she selected incorrectly, she did not get a treat. Overall, her performance was stellar, and the complete study is available at Science Direct.

Are intelligent breeds better at counting?

Some studies show dogs' intelligence is equal to human toddler. But is that smart enough to be able to count and are intelligent breeds more skillful counters?

Border collie herding dog breed
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In 2017, the dog at the top of the list of the most intelligent dogs is a border collie. It's a no-brainer, border collies are always at the forefront of the world's smartest canines every year. To watch them navigate a herding trial or keep a bunch of sheep in shape is to witness canine genius. As border collies perform these tasks, their brain is in overdrive. But can border collies in all their superior smarts count? And can they count higher than other breeds? In the case of a working border collie, he always knows how many sheep he needs to get back in the pasture, or if one or more went astray, so border collies and other dogs controlling or guarding livestock count for a living.

Different dogs are smart in different ways. Even one of the most intelligent and teachable breeds may be lousy at math and better at reading your mind. Dr. Brian Hare, the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, author of "The Genius of Dogs" and one of the top canine cognition experts in the world, says, "there is no evidence to show that one breed is cognitively superior to another."

Why would a dog need to count?

With all the excitement about dogs having the ability to count, what use is it to a dog? After all, we don't expect them to balance our checkbook or manage the household budget. But having the gift of counting and doing simple arithmetic was vital to dog's wild ancestors for keeping track of the pups. If one of them wandered away, its mother knew her pup was missing after a head count and would set off on a search to bring him back. Our domestic dog moms keep track of their puppies the same way, although the pup might only wander into another room.

And in the example of working herding dogs like border collies and cattle dogs, or livestock guardians like the Great Pyrenees, the ability to count is invaluable and becomes a crucial part of their job. Another major reason for dogs to count is to play games with us. If nothing else, counting should be fun!

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Can dogs do math?

Math is a requirement for people. It is helpful in so many ways in our daily lives. But do dogs need math? Perhaps not, but leave it to a dog, they can, in fact, do calculations! They may not be math wizards, but give a dog a chance to show off his mathematical prowess and prepare to be amazed.

Robert Young of the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil and Rebecca West of the University of Lincoln in the UK modified a test designed for human infants to learn whether dogs could do basic arithmetic. The original test involved "preferential viewing" which measured how long the infant looked at things. Research shows that adults and children will look at something longer the more unexpected or unusual it is.

For the canine test, one big treat was shown to the dog, then shielded from view by a screen. As the dog watched, experimenters added another treat. Now the dog is thinking one treat plus another one is two treats. But the experimenters surreptitiously removed one treat so that when the screen came up, there was only one treat. As in the test with infants, the surprised dog stared at this unexpected outcome. When the experimenter secretly added another treat to make three treats, the dogs were equally surprised when they saw not two but three treats. From this, the experimenters deduced that dogs not only can count, but they can also do simple math.

Fun counting and other mind games to play with your dog.

Now that you know dogs can count, you can design a few counting games to keep your dog on the ball. Numbers are tricky. Not everyone excels in mathematics. Some dogs will grasp the numbers game right away; others may walk away bored. Only through trial and error will you discover your dog's inner math whiz. One idea is to start with something based on the studies researchers have conducted. Keep it simple and intriguing by using a variety of toys or treats.

Cute German Shepherd in a blanket on bed.
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Over at Dognition, you can play fun, science-based games with your dog in the comfort of your home. Designed to enrich the relationship between dogs and their owners, Dognition is a window on how your dog perceives the world. This innovative online tool assesses your dog's mental capacity with 20 games created by scientists, trainers, and behavioral specialists. Sign up for a monthly fee, register your furry friend and learn how she thinks. You answer a series of questions which creates a personality profile for your dog, then play games in categories such as empathy, reasoning, communication, cunning and memory. Some of the exercises involve quantitative thinking among other mental gymnastics. When you understand your dog's mind, it builds a deeper connection and enhances your bond.

Taking the cake for creativity is Walter Jeffries, a sheep farmer in Vermont who has trained his livestock guardian dog Katya in an assortment of mind games including counting. 1,2, 3, 4 is there any more? Well, for Katya, it's five! Walter holds out both his hands and presents two different numbers with his fingers which are limited to five. He asks her questions that can include addition, subtraction and to choose between a higher and lower number. Katya picks a hand and taps it and gets a treat when she's right. They played these math games for years, and she is a fast learner. Walter pushes her intellectual boundaries and delights in her brilliance. From mastering shell games to math, Katya sounds like one fabulous dog. Anyone can begin teaching their dog to count and explore their many talents. All it takes is a little time for big rewards, for you and your dog.