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A Survey of Research into Canine Cognition

Cheryl S. Smith on August 18, 2010

Until roughly 20 years ago, little behavioral research was done on dogs. Ethologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and all the other “ists” showed much more interest in “exotic” wild species such as bonobos, marmosets, elephants. But lately the animal lying right at our feet has been recognized not just as a species worthy of study, but one that can open insights into human behavior as well.

Charles Darwin (1859) believed that human intelligence must have evolved from simpler organisms. As noted by Virginia Morell (2008), animals “need to find mates, food, and a path through the woods, sea, or sky – tasks that Darwin argued required problem-solving and categorizing abilities.” But late in the 1800s, researchers declared field observations to be worthless anecdotes, and turned instead to behaviorism. As behaviorism tended to view animals as only slightly more than machines, interchangeable, they studied the conveniently accessible white lab rat.

But without any sort of evolutionary perspective, the development of human cognitive talents didn’t make biological sense. As this became more and more apparent, the research outlook swung back toward behavioral ethology, and granting other animals their own forms of evolved intelligence.

Studies using dogs as subjects more than doubled between 1991 and 2001 (Miklosi, 2003). At the University of Florida, you’ll find the Canine Cognition & Behavior team in the Psychology Department. The Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England, the University of Vienna, and Eotvos University in Budapest are all turning out study after study on various aspects of canine intelligence. Both the AKC Canine Health Foundation and the Morris Animal Foundation now have funds specifically directed to behavioral studies.

In a 2003 review in ‘Animal Behaviour’, Miklosi, Topal and Csanyi evaluated “how the study of dogs broadens our understanding of comparative social cognition.” They noted that “dogs became adapted for living in human society; therefore, the human environment and social setting now represents a natural ecological niche for this species. . . . by accepting that dogs are adapted to their niche, as are other ‘natural’ species, comparative investigations can be put into new light.” They go on to point out that whereas monkeys and apes (long the favored species for studying comparative social cognition) mainly are studied in captivity, dogs can be observed in their natural habitat and compared to human children in the same habitat.

What the Research Is Revealing

Marc Bekoff (2001) has focused on dog play for a considerable number of years. He found that dogs who used the appropriate play markers, such as play bows, but then played too roughly, were avoided by dogs who had past experience with them. Bekoff called the rough players “cheaters” for “lying” about their intentions.

Nicola Rooney and John Bradshaw (2006) discovered that dogs allowed to spectate play gravitated to the winners. They rushed up to the victors. “I believe that within the context of a game, dogs prefer winners because they are likely to be a fun and effective partner with which to play,” says Rooney. It didn’t matter whether the play was dog-dog or dog-human, as long as the human included appropriate play signals. If the play markers were left out, the spectators were more hesitant to approach, perhaps viewing the interaction as a real contest and the winner as a potential threat.

Alexandra Horowitz (2004) also looked at dog play, and found in it evidence of dogs possessing a “theory of mind.” Using slow-motion video playback of dogs playing, she observed that dogs took the attention of their partner into account when giving their play markers. A dog either moved into their play partner’s field of vision before performing their play marker, or with a really distracted partner even nipped the other dog before signaling that it was all in play.

Golden Retriever playing

Josep Call at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Ainsworth, 2000) maintains that dogs extend this understanding of “gaze” to humans. He set up experiments with treats placed on the floor and humans either looking directly at the dog, playing a computer game, facing the dog but with closed eyes, or sitting with their backs to the dog. The dogs stole the treats twice as often when the human was not looking directly at them.

Cognitive scientist Ikuma Adachi and colleagues at Kyoto University hypothesized that dogs could form mental images of individual humans (Miller, 2007). To test their theory, they played a recording of either the dog’s owner or a stranger saying the dog’s name several times then showed the dog an image of the owner or a stranger. When the voice and the image did not match – either the owner’s voice followed by a stranger’s face or vice versa – the dogs consistently stared at the image for a longer time than when the voice and image matched. The researchers suspect that upon hearing the owner’s voice, the dog makes a mental image of the owner’s face, so is confused if another face appears.

Researchers at the University of Vienna demonstrated that dogs appear to be capable of selective imitation, adapting their imitation of the actions of another dog to best suit the circumstances (Range, 2007). Dogs in this study were asked to pull on a rod to open a container holding food. The natural canine preference was to use their mouths, but one dog was trained to use her paw to perform the task. When dogs observed the trained dog using her foot to pull the rod while she held a ball in her mouth, the observing dogs used their mouths to operate the mechanism. But if observer dogs watched the trained dog use her foot while her mouth was free, the observer dogs also used their feet.

At Eotvos University in Budapest, researchers have also looked at imitation in a variety of ways (Woodard, 2005). Though chimpanzees find it difficult to imitate humans, dogs excel at it. “This is not a little thing,” says Vilmos Csanyi, “because they must pay attention to the person’s actions, remember them, then apply them to their own body.” A dog taught the cue “You do it” (“csinal” in Hungarian) easily aped his owner spinning in a circle, raising an arm, taking a bow.

Csanyi’s team found in dogs a natural tendency to attend to human visual cues. The dogs again far outperformed chimpanzees in following human gesturing or gaze to locate food.

Adam Miklosi determined that dogs could also operate in the opposite direction, indicating to their humans where a desired treat or toy was hidden (Wynne, 2004). The dogs barked to get the human’s attention, then looked from the object’s location to the person and back again. All the humans were easily able to locate the hidden object.

Daniel Povinelli and colleagues at the New Iberia research center in Louisiana let chimpanzees beg from a human who could see them or someone with a bucket over their head (Wynne, 2004). The chimpanzees begged indiscriminately from either, showing little understanding of the difference. When Viranyi tried a similar experiment with dogs (Wynne, 2004), they found that the dogs begged only from the person who was looking at them.

To cement the relationship between domestication and increased attention and response to human gestures, Hare and Tomasello used the Belyaev fox experiment (Woodard, 2005). They found that the foxes bred for roughly 20 generations for their non-aggressive, non-fearful tendencies did as well as dogs at following human pointing and gazing, whereas foxes raised under the same conditions but not bred to be “companionable” performed as poorly as wolves or chimpanzees.

By now, you’ve probably all heard about Rico, the border collie with the amazing vocabulary (Wynne, 2004). Researchers at the Max Planck Institute had Rico’s owner send the dog into another room to fetch a named toy from among nine others. So there were no nonverbal cues for Rico, yet he performed at a level of 92% correct responses. When they went further, placing an unfamiliar toy among familiar ones in the room and sending Rico with an unfamiliar word, Rico managed 70% correct responses. One month later, Rico correctly retrieved three of six of the unfamiliar items, now grouped together.

Rico’s ability may be rare, but he’s not alone. Another border collie, Betsy, has a vocabulary of 300 words, and has been successfully matching a picture of a novel object shown to her in one room to the actual object in another room among other novel objects and photographs of objects (Morell, 2008).

Now researchers are using computer touch screens to take humans and their unconscious gestures out of the equation (Range, 2007). At the University of Vienna, dogs were simultaneously shown a picture of a dog and a photo of a landscape. For touching the dog photo, the dogs received a food treat. Once they were responding reliably, the dogs were shown new dog and landscape photos, and continued to choose the dog photo. When a photo of a new dog was superimposed on the landscape photo used in the initial training (which already had a negative association), the dogs chose the dog-containing landscape over a new dogless landscape.

The National Geographic program “Dog Genius” (2007) reported on further touch screen work. This time, dogs were shown drawings of two objects, such as a purse and a flowerpot, and rewarded for touching the purse. When the known negative object (the flowerpot) was paired with an entirely new object, the dogs chose the new object. This research continues.

Even dogs’ mathematical abilities are being investigated. A brief Reuters report (2002) noted that dogs recognized difference in the size of a pile of objects. A researcher in Brazil appeared to confirm this in a very small study in which he let dogs see a pile of dog treats, then raised a screen and either removed some treats or left the pile as is. When the screen was removed, dogs stared at the pile for longer if the number of treats had been changed.

Mathematician Tim Pennings used his own Corgi to observe how dogs approached retrieving a ball in water (Peterson, 2006). When the ball was thrown at an angle to the beach, the dog did not swim straight to the ball, but ran down the beach for some distance before entering the water. Field trial competitors know this behavior well, and have to train their dogs to go directly to the bird to be retrieved. They’re complying with the rules of trialing, but actually forcing the dog to be less efficient. Running on the shore is faster than swimming in the water, and after repeated measurements, Pennings found that his dog was accurately choosing the optimal path to the ball to minimize travel time. Performing these calculations requires calculus, so it appears that dogs are natural mathematicians.

A Little First-Hand Experience

I am just beginning my own one-dog experiment in how far I can push my dog’s language abilities. Using the concept of “modifier cues,” we are embarking on a gradually growing list of modifiers. Nestle already knew “left” and “right” from agility. He has recently learned “bigger” and “smaller.” Now we are at work on “fuzzy” and “smooth.” So now I can say “left bigger fuzzy” and Nestle will go the pile of objects to the left, look for the biggest fuzzy object there, and put his foot on it. We’re still firming up the “fuzzy” discrimination, but responding to the three descriptors doesn’t appear to be a problem. We will be adding “light/dark” (referring to colors) and “up/down” (referring to an elevated position versus on the floor. So far, our success rate is paralleling Rico’s, at about 90% correct. If things continue to go well with five stacked cues (“right up smaller smooth dark”), the human half of the team will need an intellectual boost to develop more modifier cues.


Ainworth, Claire. “Dogs Are a Bunch of Clever Clogs.” New Scientist. (Dec. 16, 2000). http://www.newscientist.com

Bekoff, Marc. “Moral Mutts.” Bark 14 (2001): 67.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray, 1859.

“Dog Genius.” National Geographic channel. 2007.

Horowitz, Alexandra. “Dog Minds and Dog Play.” In M. Bekoff (ed.), Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004: pp. 835-36.

Miklosi, A. et al. “Comparative Social Cognition: What Can Dogs Teach Us?” Animal Behaviour 67, no. 6 (2003): 995-1004.

Miller, Greg. “Fido Can Place Your Face.” ScienceNOW Daily News (Jan. 4, 2007). http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2007/104/1

Morell, Virginia. “Minds of Their Own.” National Geographic (March 2008). http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

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Range, Friederike et al. “Visual Categorization of Natural Stimuli by Domestic Dogs.” Animal Cognition (2007). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/oy112u1o5543.htm

Reuters. “Dogs Are Smarter than People Think.” 2002. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/07/31/dogs.reut/index.html

Rooney, Nicola and John Bradshaw. “Dogs Prefer Winners.” News in Science (2006). ABC News. http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/2006/1748000.htm.

Woodard, Colin. “Clever Canines: Did Domestication Make Dogs Smarter?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 51, no. 32 (Apr. 15, 2005): A12.

Wynne, Clive. “Does Your Dog Understand You?” The Scientist (Dec. 20, 2004). http://www.the-scientist.com/2004/12/20/18/1/


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