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Research Discovers Canine Cognitive Abilities

Recent scientific research indicates that dogs apply prior learning to novel settings, exhibit selective imitation, and comprehend human motions and new language.

For centuries, dog lovers have lauded the intellect of man’s greatest friend and have been accused of anthropomorphism. However, science has made some exciting discoveries concerning canine cognitive abilities in recent years.

Dogs Apply Earlier Learning to Different Situations

In a study at the University of Vienna in Austria, dogs used touch screen computers to show that they could categorize photographs. They were trained with treats to select a dog picture over a landscape picture. When they were offered a different set of dog and landscape pictures, they continued to choose the dog pictures, demonstrating that they could apply earlier learning to a different situation. Researchers tested further by presenting the dogs with contradictory information to see if they were capable of forming concepts. When shown pictures of an empty landscape and a landscape with a dog, they continued to select the image with the dog.

Dogs Selectively Imitate

A Border Collie named Guinness has been able to identify different landscapes, different faces, and even different dog breeds. Like most of the dogs tested at the Clever Dog Lab, she seemed to enjoy watching the monitor. Guinness was also taught to open a food dispenser by pushing a handle with her paw. Dogs will instinctively use their nose for most situations like this, but when other dogs observed Guinness using her paw, they also used their paw, indicating that they figured there must be an advantage to this method. However, when they watched Guinness with a ball in her mouth and using her paw, they usually used their nose, indicating that they figured the ball in her mouth was why she used it. They did not simply imitate her actions but selectively chose to emulate them when it seemed appropriate.

Dogs Use Logic in Learning New Words

Another Border Collie named Rico was able to identify more than 200 toys. Researchers then placed a new toy among seven familiar toys and, using a word Rico had never heard before, asked him to fetch the new toy. Seventy percent of the time, Rico brought the correct toy, indicating that he understood that the new word must mean the new toy.

Dogs Understand Human Expressions

In other experiments, dogs as young as six weeks  showed a unique ability for understanding human expressions such as finger-pointing or gazing at specific objects. The Mac Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says, “When it comes to an understanding human behavior, no mammal comes even close to the dog.” Perhaps that’s why they became known as man’s best friends.

Science seems to be catching up to what dog owners have long understood. There is more behind those big, soulful eyes than just sleep, eating, and playing. Dogs are intelligent animals who use logic, feel emotions, and form strong bonds with humans and other animals.