Claim: Dogs Can Form “Abstract Concepts”


Photo credit: Marcus Wallis via Unsplash.

University of Buffalo researchers reported recently on a study of three pet dogs that they had taught to “ponder their past”:

Dogs are capable of learning the instruction “do that again,” and can flexibly access memories of their own recent actions — cognitive abilities they were not known to possess, according to the results of a recent University of Buffalo study.

“We found that dogs could be trained to repeat specific actions on cue, and then take what they’d learned and apply it to actions they had never been asked to repeat,” says Allison Scagel, Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author , who was a UB graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the time of the research. “Our findings showed that they were able to apply the concept of repetition to new situations.”

BERT GAMBINI, UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO“DOGS CAN DO MORE THAN JUST TRICKS, THEY CAN EVEN BE ASKED TO PONDER THEIR PAST” AT PHYS.ORG (JULY 14, 2022); THE PAPER REQUIRES A FEE OR SUBSCRIPTION.

No Surprises Yet

Nothing about this should come as any surprise. Dogs learning to hunt rabbits or escape through the fence must often apply skills they learned in one situation to another.

But then we are told,

“More generally, we found evidence that dogs are capable of forming abstract concepts.”

Historically, there has been a notion that conscious awareness of past personal experiences is the exclusive domain of humans, but recent research isn’t supporting that conclusion, according to Scagel.

“Our study shows that dogs are capable of conceptualization, placing them in an expanding category of other animals that includes bottlenose dolphins and chimpanzees.”

BERT GAMBINI, UNIVERSITY OF BUFFALO“DOGS CAN DO MORE THAN JUST TRICKS, THEY CAN EVEN BE ASKED TO PONDER THEIR PAST” AT PHYS.ORG (JULY 14, 2022) THE PAPER REQUIRES A FEE OR SUBSCRIPTION.

No, wait. “Forming Abstract Concepts?”

Here’s what the dogs actually did, according to the researchers:

Traditional dog training is cue and response. When dogs hear or see a trained cue, they respond with a behavior associated with that cue. For a baseline, the researchers started training the dogs in that fashion, with simple cues like spin in a circle, lie down, or walk around an object.

The dogs then learned a separate repeat cue (the word “again” accompanied by a hand gesture), which instructed them to reproduce the action they had just completed. To assess whether the dogs had actually learned a general concept of repeating recent actions, they were asked to repeat novel actions that they had never been asked to repeat before. Despite never being trained to repeat these actions, the dogs passed this test.

BERT GAMBINI, UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO“DOGS CAN DO MORE THAN JUST TRICKS, THEY CAN EVEN BE ASKED TO PONDER THEIR PAST” AT PHYS.ORG (JULY 14, 2022) THE PAPER REQUIRES A FEE OR SUBSCRIPTION.

They’re well-trained dogs. They knew to “repeat” whatever action they had just completed when they were told to repeat it. But again, “forming abstract concepts”? No. Abstractions are entities like social justice, the square root of minus 1, time travel, or for that matter, theories of animal intelligence. Dogs don’t think that way; Neither do bottlenose dolphins or chimpanzees.

Read the rest at Mind Matters Newspublished by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

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