Dec 23, 2019 I Paul Seaburn

Smart Doggy: Study Shows Dogs Understand Numbers

You know your dog can find his or her present under the Christmas tree. You know they can open it without any help. But did you know that they can count the presents, notice that they got the least and exact revenge by conveniently ‘forgetting’ that the tree is indoors? It turns out dogs are capable of processing numbers and use the same area of the brain to do it that we humans use. Does this work in reverse? Can humans be taught to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ … because we all know a few we wish would learn that during the holiday season?

“We found evidence of ratio-dependent activation, which is a key feature of the approximate number system (ANS), in canine parietotemporal cortex in the majority of dogs tested. This finding is suggestive of a neural mechanism for quantity perception that has been conserved across mammalian evolution.”

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I understand the study. Do you?

In a study published in Biology Letters and summarized in a press release, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, put 11 dogs from various breeds -- border collies, pitbull mixes, Labrador golden retriever mixes and others – into the machine humans hate to enter – a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. Trained to sit and stay, the dogs were told to rest their heads on a table and watch a screen. Despite the roar of the MRI, the dogs obeyed as the screen flashed arrays of dots whose number and size changed every 300 milliseconds. After it was over and the dogs munched on their treats, Berns and his fellow researchers cocked their heads and raised their ears in that classic “quizzical dog” pose as they reviewed the surprising results.

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Say what?

In 8 out of the 11 dogs, their parietotemporal cortex, which is the canine equivalent of the parietal cortex in humans where it helps process numbers, lit up on the functional MRI when numbers varied – two dots to six dots – but not when just their size changed -- four small dots to four large ones. So, Spot sees spots and can differentiate between the lots. Does this tell us anything?

"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."

Uh-oh. Your pooch many not know how to sit, beg or roll over yet, but it inherently knows you’re playing tricks when you said you only had three treats but it saw you take four out of the box. Or at least its parietotemporal cortex knows. The team admits that this research is more beneficial in studying human brains – especially in what happened 80 million years ago when dog and human ancestors separated but only humans used that shared neural mechanism for numerosity to develop algebra and calculus.

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Counting dots? Been there, done that.

At this point, dog lovers will point out that there’s no evidence cats have this same inherent ability to recognize numerical ratios. Cat lovers might respond that only 8 out of the 11 dogs tested had the ability and your dog seems to be one of the other three. In the meantime, your dog and cat are sharing presents under the tree.

Good advice for all this holiday season.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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