Tag Archives: Dognition

Do Bigger Brains Equal Smarter Dogs?

Bigger dogs, with larger brains, perform better on certain measures of intelligence than their smaller canine counterparts, according to a new study led by the University of Arizona.

bigger vs smaller

Bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups. Credit: © alexzizu / Fotolia

Larger-brained dogs outperform smaller dogs on measures of executive functions – a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. In particular, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups, according to the study published in the journal Animal Cognition.

“The jury is out on why, necessarily, brain size might relate to cognition,” said lead study author Daniel Horschler, a UA anthropology doctoral student and member of the UA’s Arizona Canine Cognition Center. “We think of it as probably a proxy for something else going on, whether it’s the number of neurons that matters or differences in connectivity between neurons. Nobody’s really sure yet, but we’re interested in figuring out what those deeper things are.”

Canine brain size does not seem to be associated with all types of intelligence, however. Horschler found that brain size didn’t predict a dog’s performance on tests of social intelligence, which was measured by testing each dog’s ability to follow human pointing gestures. It also wasn’t associated with a dog’s inferential and physical reasoning ability.

The study’s findings mirror what scientists have previously found to be true in primates – that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.

“Previous studies have been composed mostly or entirely of primates, so we weren’t sure whether the result was an artifact of unique aspects of primate brain evolution,” Horschler said. “We think dogs are a really great test case for this because there’s huge variation in brain size, to a degree you don’t see in pretty much any other terrestrial mammals. You have chihuahuas versus Great Danes and everything in between.”

Horschler’s study is based on data from more than 7,000 purebred domestic dogs from 74 different breeds. Brain size was estimated based on breed standards.

The data came from the citizen science website Dognition.com, which offers instructions for dog owners to test their canines’ cognitive abilities through a variety of game-based activities. The users then submit their data to the site, where it can be accessed by researchers.

Short-term memory was tested by dog owners hiding a treat, in view of their dog, under one of two overturned plastic cups. Owners then waited 60, 90, 120 or 150 seconds before releasing their dog to get the treat. Smaller dogs had more difficulty remembering where the treat was hidden.

To test self-control, owners placed a treat in front of their seated dog and then forbade the dog from taking it. Owners then either watched the dog, covered their own eyes or turned away from the dog. Larger-breed dogs typically waited longer to snag the forbidden treat.

Horschler and his colleagues controlled for whether or not the dogs had been trained. They found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.

In the future, Horschler said he’d like to do comparative studies of cognitive abilities in different breed varieties, such as the miniature poodle and much larger standard poodle, which are essentially the same except for their size.

“I’m really interested in how cognition evolves and how that arises biologically,” Horschler said. “We’re coming to understand that brain size is in some way related to cognition, whether it’s because of brain size specifically or whether it’s a proxy for something else.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

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Female dogs are better navigators

New data from Dognition shows that female dogs tend to be more flexible navigators than males. This is the opposite of trends in humans, and gives us important insight into how dogs see the world.

Map reading dog

In the navigation game, part of the monthly Dognition subscription, owners hid food inside two bowls, and taught their dog that the treat was always on one side, for example always on the left. Then the owner brought their dog around to the opposite side and recorded which bowl their dog chose.

Brain

Female dogs were more likely to use an allocentric, or a landmark based strategy. They used objects in the room to figure out which bowl to choose. For instance, in the beginning, perhaps the bowl with the treats was near a door, or a lamp. When the females were brought around to the opposite side, they still looked for those landmarks, which means no matter which way they were oriented, they would always go back to the bowl they learned was ‘correct’ in the beginning.

In people, this is called forming a mental map, or using a ‘bird’s eye’ view. Using allocentric navigation means the dogs were mostly relying on their hippocampus, a part of the brain that mediates spatial awareness and memory. This strategy is particularly effective in large and unfamiliar environments, and is the more flexible of the two strategies. Not surprisingly, humans who rely on environmental navigation are good at reading maps.

Male dogs were more likely to be egocentric navigators. They learned the association by thinking ‘the treat is on my right’. When owners brought the dogs around to the opposite side, these dogs chose the bowl on their right, which was the opposite bowl that they had chosen before. By using this strategy, the dogs were mostly relying on their basal ganglia, a part of the brain that mediates motor skills.

Before there were maps or navigational instruments, Pacific islanders used egocentric navigation for long sea voyages. They used the position of the stars in relation to themselves, (e.g. to get to this island, the Milky Way should be on my right). People who rely on egocentric navigation tend to make good cinematographers – they have a special talent for allowing others to see the world as they do.

The results are exactly the opposite as in humans, where men are usually allocentric navigators and women are egocentric navigators. Perhaps male dogs just need to get better at asking for directions.

Source:  Dognition news