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Do dogs have the ability to reason?

Do you ever look at your dog and wonder what they’re thinking? Are they thinking? Are they able to interpret and reach conclusions about the world around them?

According to canine researcher Stanley Coren, in an article posted by the American Psychological Association, a dog’s mental capabilities are close to that of a human of 2 to 2.5 years of age.

In theory, this means that the average dog may be able to follow two- or three-step directions, sort objects by shape, and imitate actions.

This article will explore the evolution of dogs’ cognitive abilities, how they compare to other animals, and how this information can help us to better care for our canine companions.

Evolution and development of dogs’ cognitive abilities

Some evidence shows that man and dog have been living together for 20,000-plus years. During this time, canines have evolved from fierce grey wolves to the domesticated dog we know and love today.

Today, the World Canine Association recognizes 360 different breeds of domesticated dogs. According to genetic testing and ancient petroglyphs, some of the oldest dog breeds include the Akita, Basenji, and Afghan Hound.

While dogs share an extinct canine ancestor with wild grey wolves and are thought to be closely related, they present some very distinct physical traits including

  • Generally wider and stockier frames
  • Smaller heads, snouts, teeth, and paws compared to their body size
  • Weaker jaw strength and less physical endurance

All of these attributes may have evolved over time due to the reliance and comfort of living under human care, while their wolf counterparts still actively hunt for food and protect their pack from potential predators.

How do dogs compare to their ancestors when it comes to cognitive abilities?

According to the Wolf Education and Research Center, in studies where wolves and dogs were both presented with a problem to solve, such as a puzzle box, the wolf had a higher rate of determination and success in completing the task while the dog displayed a habit of looking to the human for help.

This might not mean that the dog couldn’t solve the task, but that domestication may have made these canines less motivated and more dependent on human intervention.

Previously mentioned canine researcher Stanley Coren suggests there are three modes of intelligence within canine cognitive function including instinctive, adaptive, and working/obedience.

It might be that wolves display a higher rate of instinctive and adaptive abilities (what they were born to do and how they react to the ever-changing environment around them). While domesticated dogs tend to perform more working and obedience abilities, which may be why the latter is generally more easily trained and adapted for life inside our homes.

Methods for testing and measuring dog’s reasoning abilities

Studying canine cognitive function is an ongoing area of research that involves a wide set of variables and methods. Some ways scientists test for reasoning abilities and cognitive function in dogs include the following:

  • Testing visual and verbal cues such as pointing to a toy and saying “Toy!” for the dog to retrieve
  • Social or observational learning (i.e. a dog enters a kennel to retrieve a treat from the kennel after watching another dog bring a treat out of the same kennel)
  • Awareness of surroundings such as, stopping at a closed gate or walking around an obstacle
  • Cooperation such as two dogs tearing a box apart together to both retrieve food hidden inside
  • Self-recognition and body awareness
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These types of tests may provide insight into very basic canine reasoning capabilities. Limitations to these tests may be the particular dogs’ willingness to participate and the presence of underlying medical conditions.

If a dog is unwilling to participate in tests due to physical discomfort or anxiety, this may not be an accurate representation of the cognitive function, and that individual may not be able to be considered for the study.

Examples of reasoning tasks dogs can perform

The mirror test

Perhaps one of the most well-known studies in animal cognition and self-awareness is the mirror test. This test involves scientists placing a mark on the subject (such as a dot on the chest), placing the subject in front of a mirror, and observing if the subject displays any recognition of the new spot by touching it.

Therefore, signifying some degree of self-recognition by reasonably concluding that the mark is new and different.

Some animals that have “passed” this test include dolphins, elephants, and great apes. When presented with trials of the mirror test, canines did not respond to the mark. However, researchers deduced there could be other variables at play.

Dog’s vision may play a role in not passing the mirror test as the anatomy of a dog’s eye causes them to see color differently, have less binocular vision (depth perception), and have less visual acuity (ability to see stationary objects clearly).

Because of the increased amount of rods in dogs’ eyes, they are able to see objects in motion more clearly than when stationary. That, plus the fact the snout could get in the way of seeing something directly in front of them, could set canines at a disadvantage for the mirror test.

Instead, some canine scientists have investigated the hypothesis of self-awareness by testing if a dog could recognize its own urine since smell is a dog’s primary sense.

The “body is an obstacle” test

Scientists at Eotvos Lorand University have looked into a canine’s ability to reason by testing body awareness, using the “body is an obstacle” test. This test has also been used to test the cognitive functions of infant babies and elephants.

The objective of this test is to determine if dogs could reason that they had to move their own bodies in order to pick up a toy and hand it to a human. The conclusion was that the dogs did display a level of reasoning and awareness.

Imitation

Dogs are also known to display complex cognitive abilities such as imitation. An article published by PhysOrg states scientists studying imitative behavior found that dogs learn best by automatic imitation.

Studies suggest that dogs’ ability to imitate may be related to their cohabitation with humans, as the dog is more likely to receive a reward if they imitate, which is a deduction of reasoning skills.

Association

Dogs may also remember specific events and display association. Your dog may express “excitement”, which may be displayed as a neutral, wide-wagging tail when you pull out their leash because they may associate that item with going for a walk.

Reasoning abilities within the animal kingdom

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a dog’s cognitive abilities are compared to that of a two-year-old human. But what about other reportedly “intelligent” animals?

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When referring to intelligent beings, it’s always important to keep in mind certain animals have evolved to fill certain niches, so intelligence doesn’t look the same across the board. Each species has adapted physical and mental characteristics to best survive the environment around them.

So, how do scientists measure intelligence throughout the animal kingdom?

  • Social cooperation
  • Tool use
  • Self-awareness
  • Language-like abilities

These may all be skills and characteristics scientists look at to determine the general intelligence of an animal.

Crows using tools, whales displaying a form of language, and octopuses creatively breaking out of aquarium enclosures are all considered to be instances of reasoning and intelligence throughout the animal kingdom.

If you want to learn more about intelligent animals. Check out our article “How Smart Are Chickens Compared to Dogs?”

Implications for training and behavior modification

Now, that we have discussed the reasoning capabilities of our canine companions, what does this mean in terms of care for our furry friends? Understanding your dog and what he/she is capable of is the first and most important step to training and general care.

Setting reasonable expectations for your dog’s behavior and training is imperative to ensuring success for everyone involved.

There are two main approaches to dog training based on what canine behaviorists know about canine reasoning skills: operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning involves reaching a desired response by pairing two stimuli, usually one naturally occurring and one added stimulus, to eventually elicit the wanted response with only the first stimuli.

For example, if a dog becomes stressed by a particular sound, you may give your dog a treat with the presence of the sound to elicit a more positive response. Over time, this may desensitize your dog to that sound.

Desensitization is a component of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning involves the addition or removal of a stimulus based on desired or undesired behaviors. This includes positive/negative reinforcement (adding or subtracting a stimulus to encourage a behavior) and positive/negative punishment (adding or subtracting a stimulus to discourage a behavior).

It’s important to be aware of these types of conditioning methods when it comes to training your dog because these have been proven to pair best with dogs’ cognitive abilities.

It’s also important to understand what motivates your dog.

Motivation

Some dogs are more food motivated while some respond more to toys. Some simply want your praise! Finding what motivates your dog based on their personality, etc. is another important step to successful dog training.

When training your dog, it’s important to keep in mind that dogs communicate primarily with body language. Because of the dog’s vision, as we briefly touched on earlier, your dog may be more successful if given large sweeping hand motions or body cues when teaching behaviors.

Try to teach visual and vocal cues for each behavior. Start by working on these together and then practicing them separately.

Always keep in mind that every dog is different and make sure to keep training FUN!

Final thoughts

In conclusion, what we know about canine cognitive function today suggests that dogs do possess the ability to reason to some degree.

Still, scientists are learning more every day about our furry friends’ ability to communicate and learn!

As a pet parent, it’s important to stay up to date on this information, as knowing what our dogs may be capable of is a crucial step in providing the best care for them.