Science can help us better understand our dogs and how they learn

When we KNOW better, we DO better

My Research

 

Fortunately for all of us dog lovers, canine behavior and cognition has been a rapidly growing topic of interest in the scientific community! My own research has focused on dogs’ memories and their ability to form abstract concepts. Abstract concepts include concepts like “same” vs “different,” “bigger” vs “smaller,” “more” vs “less,” among others. Essentially, abstract concepts refer to the relationship between things and help us learn efficiently. For instance, once you understand what “more” and “less” mean, you do not constantly have to relearn what having “more” of something means every time you deal with differing quantities. For a long time, humans were the only species thought to be capable of forming abstract concepts like these. We sure like to think we’re special, but are we really? My research has set out to explore this question!

Do dogs remember their past actions?

            Ever wonder what your dog remembers? Do they remember places they’ve been, people they’ve seen, or things they’ve done? How would we even begin to answer this question scientifically? Though we cannot ask dogs if they remember what they had for breakfast, we CAN teach them to perform specific actions in a way that relies upon their memories. In this study published in 2022, I trained dogs that a specific cue meant they needed to repeat the most recent action they had performed (essentially, “do that again!”) and then put them through several tests to probe whether they were really relying on their memories to succeed when given this cue, how their memories fade over short periods of time, and whether they could apply the rule to actions they had never been asked to repeat before. Dogs successfully learned the concept and could apply the repeating rule to new actions. This research was exciting in that it was one of the first demonstrations that dogs can form abstract concepts, an ability once thought to be uniquely human!

Press Coverage:

University at Buffalo

Dogs can do more than just tricks; they can even be asked to ponder their past

Buffalo News

Dogs can “do that again,” study finds

Spectrum News

UB study finds your dog can do more than just tricks

Earth.com

Dogs can be prompted to repeat their recent actions

Mashable

Dogs are smarter than you think

Do dogs understand the concept of "same" vs "different?"

                One of the most essential concepts we learn is that of “same” vs “different.” Understanding that two objects or situations are identical or have been encountered before saves individuals valuable time. Think about it – every time you encounter a red light at an intersection, you don’t have to relearn what a red light means, you just understand it means the same thing as every other red light. Without a concept of “same” or “different,” there would be a lot more car accidents! As with most mental capacities, this ability was once thought to be uniquely human and put us “above” other animals. As it turns out, scientists are discovering this cognitive capacity in other species – but what about dogs? Once again using their willingness to work with humans to my advantage, I decided to examine this question by teaching dogs specific behaviors to indicate whether sets of objects presented to them contained all “same” or all “different” items. Dogs could successfully discriminate sets of “same” objects from sets of “different” objects, whether there were 16 objects in the set or only 2! They could also correctly classify sets of objects they had never seen before as “same” or “different,” indicating they had not just memorized responses to specific items – they really understood the concept!