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Study: Dogs can count, kind of

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That’s among the findings of a new study by researchers at Emory University (EU) in Atlanta, Georgia.

More accurately, the findings indicate that dogs spontaneously process basic numerical quantities—such as the number other dogs in a dog park or the number of squirrels in the front yard—and they do it using a part of their brain that corresponds closely to the same part of the brain humans use to do the same thing. That region is called the parietotemporal cortex in animals and the parietal cortex in humans.

This similarity between the two species suggests that common neural mechanisms for counting have been retained throughout the evolution of mammals, according to the study.

That ability to rapidly estimate the number of objects in a group of objects is known as the approximate number system. Previous studies suggest that monkeys, fish, and bees, in addition to dogs, also have this ability. But much of this research has used trained animals that receive multiple tests and rewards. That leaves open the question of whether the ability is innate in these species, as it is in humans—a question the EU researchers hoped to answer.

In the new study, lead researcher Gregory Berns, PhD, MD, a neuroscientist at EU, and his colleagues recruited 11 dogs to see whether they could find brain activity associated with a sensitivity to numbers.

Berns is founder of the Dog Project, which began researching canine cognition in 2012. As part of their research pioneering, Berns and his Dog Project colleagues were the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation.

The new study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan dogs’ brains as they viewed varying numbers of dots flashed on a screen. The results showed that the dogs’ parietotemporal cortex responded to differences in the number of the dots. The researchers held the total area of the dots constant, demonstrating that it was the number of the dots, not the size, that generated the response.

Eight of the 11 dogs passed the test. The researchers noted that slightly different brain regions lit up in each dog, likely because they were different breeds, Berns said.

“Our work not only shows that dogs use a similar part of their brain to process numbers of objects as humans do—it shows that they don’t need to be trained to do it,” said Berns. He added that their findings “provide some of the strongest evidence yet” that most mammals are born to count.

So while dogs may not have the ability to do higher math, they do notice when owners put less food in their bowls or reward them with extra treats.

Photo credit: © iStock/Monica Click