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Can your dog count?

Original Publication Date: February 22, 2016
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

"Come," "sit," "stay" and "cookie" are a few of the words in the approximately 150-word vocabulary of most dogs. Data is sparse, but scientists are starting to investigate whether or not our clever pups have arithmetic skills as well as language aptitudes.

One study mimics a test used to determine if 5-month-old infants have rudimentary counting skills. A baby is shown a doll that is then placed behind a low screen. The child is then shown another doll that is also placed behind the screen. The screen is lifted, and the time the child spends looking at the dolls is determined.

A bit of sleight-of-hand is sometimes employed and the second doll is removed or a third doll is added so 1 + 1 no longer equals 2 when the screen is lifted. If two dolls are not present, the child spends much more time looking at the results. Scientists conclude the confused child realizes an unexpected number of dolls is present and therefore has the basic math skills to distinguish numbers of items.

Investigators reproduced this test with 11 dogs using a set of tempting dog treats instead of dolls. The results were similar. Dogs were first shown one treat that was placed behind a low screen and then a second treat that was placed behind the screen. Dogs gave only a brief look if the screen was raised and the expected two treats were present. The gaze was much longer if one bone had been removed or a third one added. Researchers concluded dogs have the rudimentary math skills to understand quantity.

Retrievers go a step further to demonstrate dogs can count. A hunter may shoot one or up to three or four birds before sending his dog to retrieve them. Without being told, a retriever knows how many birds his owner has downed and makes only the necessary number of trips into the field to find and return the downed birds to his master. The dog stops trips into the field when the last bird is found and retrieved.

Historically and today, math skills are especially valuable to dogs in the wild. For example, it is important to a member of a wolf pack to know the number of allies and enemies in the group when considering a move to become leader of the pack. A mother dog needs the same skills to know if her entire litter is present or if one has wandered off and needs to be found.

To date, there have been few studies to evaluate the mathematical abilities of dogs. Your dog does have math skills and can count. He will know if you show him three treats and give him only two, but he doesn't have the talent to balance your checkbook.


Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at HolisticTouchTherapy.com.