Even though they’ve been our closest pals for thousands of years, there’s still so much about dogs we don’t know. How much can they really understand and relate to us? Do they have any idea what we’re talking about at all? At the very least we now know they can understand numbers… sort of.
A new scientific study has demonstrated some really interesting things about mammals’ relationship with numbers. More specifically, it shows that dogs, like humans and some primates, have neurological sensitivity to numbers. It isn’t so much that dogs can count (at least using our language or number systems.) Basically, the evidence revealed that dogs innately understand quantities.
For the study, neuroscientists at Emory University in Atlanta gathered 11 dogs of varying breeds to participate. The dogs ranged from Pit Bull mixes to Border Collies. These dogs all had their brains scanned in an MRI machine. The researchers were looking for a specific region of the brain with sensitivity to numbers.
In this video, you can see the dogs adorably and willingly participate in their MRIs. They just sort of trot right inside and place their little chins on a block. Then these good pups stay totally motionless for the scan.
As you can see, from inside the scanner the dogs were looking at a screen in front of them. On the screen, a series of dots appeared, changing every 300 milliseconds. Each time there would be a different amount of dots.
In theory, the dogs’ brains would show more activity in a dedicated region for representing quantities when the number of dots was very different. For example, a transition from three little dots to ten large dots. And that theory was proven! Neural activity in the brains increased when the ratios were greater.
Eight of the eleven dogs passed the “test.” Scientists speculate the difference in the dogs’ breeds is responsible for that margin.
So, how does this change what we know about dogs? Well, scientists already believed dogs have an “approximate number system.” This means things like the ability to rapidly estimate the number of sheep in a flock. The research that led to this conclusion though, used trained animals receiving multiple tests and rewards. So we were never sure if the number-sensing ability was innate in dogs like it is in people.
Krista Macpherson, a canine cognition researcher at Western University in London, Canada believes this information can help dog trainers. Dogs might just care more about the number of items in their rewards instead of the volume.
“These findings support our understanding of the Approximate Number System; previously, these effects had only been demonstrated behaviorally in dogs, so this is an important contribution to our understanding of canine cognition.”
All this just makes me wonder how much more we can learn about our furry best friends!