Dogs are smarter than you think, scientists find


Don’t be fooled.

Animal researchers found that pet dogs are capable of much more than just grasping commands like “fetch the ball,” “sit,” and “roll over.” They can remember what they just did, and reproduce that action on cue, says a new study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

“It’s the first evidence that dogs are capable of some kind of abstract conceptualization,” Allison Scagel, one of the study’s authors and a Ph.D. student at the University at Buffalo when she conducted the research, told Mashable.

Abstract concepts, which are often linked to intelligence in humans, have more to do with emotions or actions as opposed to direct things in the physical world. Very few animals, like dolphins, have the ability to ponder their past and repeat recently performed actions. This study is the first of its kind to show that dogs also have this potential.

“It’s the first evidence that dogs are capable of some kind of abstract conceptualization.”

Scagel’s team first trained the dogs to perform basic actions, as is done with any dog, such as instructing them to “spin” or “lay down.” Then, they taught the dogs a new cue that eventually became the repeat cue, which is a combination of a hand gesture and a spoken word. They kept on adding more actions to the training, and used the same repeat cue.

“Eventually, it kind of clicked for them that, ‘Oh, this can apply to anything I just did. And I’m supposed to repeat the last action that I performed,'” Scagel explained.

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A big cognitive leap

What’s most interesting is the dogs were able to create actions by themselves, and then look back on the same action when the researchers gave them the repeat cue. That’s a big cognitive leap. “They were still able to come up with something on their own, and then think back to that action and repeat it,” Scagel told Mashable.

Scagel gave some examples. Her dog, who was one of three dogs trained in the study, walked to a stool and put his feet up on it. Another dog went over to a box and pulled it down with her paw. With repeat cues, they recollected these actions, and performed them again and again.

“And that’s something that is, as far as I know, only been studied in dolphins before.”

“This whole idea that animals can replay their experiences somehow is one that’s of great interest. And so I think this study makes a nice contribution here,” said Colin Allen, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies animal cognition. Allen was not involved in this recent study.

Research suggests dogs can think in abstract ways, similar to dolphins.
Credit: Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

Dogs in this study weren’t simply recalling some past event. They were able to remember and repeat what they just did, added Allen. “And that’s something that is, as far as I know, only been studied in dolphins before,” he said.

Age may not determine whether or not dogs can recall past actions. Of the three dogs that participated in the study, one dog was more than eight years old and was still able to perform as well as younger dogs.

This paper clearly suggests that dogs have the capacity for complex thought. They can be trained to respond to cues flexibly, according to the situation, Scagel said. And they have the capacity for more advanced thinking. “It doesn’t have to be just, ‘If I asked you to sit, you sit.’ You can train them to do some more complex things.”

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