We love our pets. Dogs especially hold a unique place in our hearts, perhaps because, at some point, thousands of years ago, we chose them, brought them into our homes, and began working to domesticate them. Uplifting the canine species within our own understanding of their needs and capabilities is something humans have been working on for longer than anyone can remember. As though they were our children, we feed them, care for them, name, and dress them. We bathe and play with our dogs, and we certainly love them, so it’s no surprise that we anthropomorphize them as well. Imbuing them with qualities that we see as uniquely human, but how much of it is accurate, and how much is in our heads. While we can’t answer that entirely even now, studies are being conducted all the time to understand our friends the dogs. As it turns out, a new study says dogs have the brains to understand numbers.
Our pups aren’t alone in the ability to keep track of numbers. In fact, several species can count, at least a little bit. The idea of ‘self’ or ‘one’ and ‘some’ or ‘a group’ is relatively common. However, those aren’t real numbers in the sense that we mean it here. When we say dogs can understand numbers and other animals as well, we mean the progression from one to two, to three, and so forth. Many animals show an understanding of more or less than there should be. Some spiders can tell if there’s less food on their web than they left, for example. Birds, dolphins, fish, frogs, and chimpanzees have all displayed a numerical prowess. According to the New York Times, young chimps are better at math than humans, or at least quicker within their own understanding. Now it seems our dogs, some of them anyhow can do some math as well.
What Does It Matter
Why would an animal need math at all? Surely they aren’t keeping accounts and doing taxes. They have no inventory to speak of. Or do they? The ability to count how many hunters go into a blind, and then emerge again later to leave is useful to animal survival. In mating, those frogs we mentioned from the NYTimes keep track of how many chirps they make to compete through “oneupmanship” and get the ‘girl,’ by proving their math and song skills.
For a spider or squirrel, knowing how much food is in their larder is vital to surviving. Even fish can use estimation to become part of the largest school possible because being in a bigger school means their chances of getting eaten by a predator are less. They may not be measuring out cups of ingredients for a recipe, but animals certainly use math. The ability to estimate group size, to count at least a little, and organize by how many or how much of something you have isn’t universal, but it’s a whole lot more common than we might expect.
Animal intelligence isn’t something most people think about often. For the most part, it doesn’t help us or hinder us directly, so we don’t spend much time thinking about it. Fortunately, scientists are a different ‘breed’ when it comes to questioning, and some brilliant people decided to test a few lucky and savvy pooches to see where they’re at with numbers. As it turns out, they’re further along than we knew.
What Kind of Math Do Dogs Use?
While it’s true that not every dog passes every test, the same can be said of humans, and we unquestionably use math. According to the AKC, dogs can estimate, count, and do basic addition. Dogs presented with equidistant piles of food most often choose the one which has more. Similarly, they choose a more substantial treat. This is a basic form of estimation. Oddly, they also tend to select the immediate reward over a larger one, so if you give a smaller pile nearby, and a larger one further out, the dog is more likely to go for whatever reward is closest. They prioritize based on both quantity and ease of availability. Incidentally, this also shows the capability to judge distance.
Dogs, like babies, can anticipate the outcome of primary mathematical displays. Studies have used the same technique, by gauging how long a dog or a human baby stares at something to identify confusion. In tests where they’re shown something, then it’s covered up, and a second object is placed behind the cover, dogs expect to see two when the cover is removed. If the researchers add a third item or take one away so they only see one where they know two should be, they evidence confused behavior.
A retriever uses basic math while hunting. You don’t need a study to see this, just good aim. A dog has to be able to count to know how many of something to go and get. Retrievers consistently go and get all the ‘ducks’ (or whatever else they’ve seen that needs retrieving) that their human hunter brings down. Mothers of many species display basic counting capabilities as well when they easily identify how many of their litter are present. This skill tells a mother when there’s a missing pup who needs to be located. Though it’s not rocket science, basic math is evidently something dogs can and do have the ability to understand.
While it’s fine to infer proof from actions and study animal behavior without seeing the actual brain activity, a small group of dogs have been subjects of a study using a canine fMRI (brain scan). At the same time, they did math or attempted to do so. The study, published by Royal Society Publishing, is the first of its kind showing there’s evidence for a dogs brain having a unique ‘math’ region that allows them to make calculations.
Just as with humans, and other animals, the evidence that dogs can do basic math like estimation and minor counting isn’t a learned skill. Instead, it’s inherent, merely a part of who and what we are. Moreover, just like humans and other animals, dogs seem to vary in their ability to do math. Hopefully, there will be more studies soon to add evidence to the collection that’s stacking up to prove our best friends can do math too.