Can Dogs Count?

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Introduction

You may have seen dogs who can count on television. Oprah once hosted Maggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who would tap her paw when asked to count and even add numbers together! A counting dog is adorable. 

Some might begin to wonder if the dog is performing a trick or if the dog is truly understanding the numerals and able to count. It is an interesting question and scientists are learning more about the creatures around us who rely on counting and mathematical skills to manage their lives.

Signs Your Dog is Counting

How do you know if your dog is counting? There are actually a number of ways to count. Typically, a dog will show a counting behavior by making taps with a paw. The dog may use another behavior as the signal of counting if trained to do so. 

For example, a trainer may teach a dog to roll over a certain number of times to command. Other signals of counting ability might be detected if a dog recognizes more or fewer objects. In these instances, the dog will seek the "more" quantity.

Counting behaviors will be obvious in the dog. Most often, the dog will tap their paw to the command to show the number. When the dog is engaged in a behavior that has been trained, the dog will be alert to the handler, focused, sitting and waiting for direction. You may note some blinking, which is a sign of acceptance of direction. The dog will receive a reward and look to the handler. Because counting behavior is usually demonstrated with the handler giving direction, the dog will appear to be under the control of the handler and obedient to signals and rewards.

When presented with situations involving counting, the dog will be well behaved. The dog will be observant to the commands and to the objects in the environment, most typically food. The dog may demonstrate tapping as trained or go to objects if a detection task. You may observe a searching behavior in which the dog is looking for something that is missing. For example, some believe that a mother can detect if a pup is missing from the litter by counting or a sense of numbers which would lead to searching behavior.

Body Language

Signs to look for if you think your dog may be counting include:
  • Alert
  • Tail up
  • Paw raised
  • Blinking

Other Signs

Other signs your pooch is keeping track of numbers include:
  • Tapping Their Paw
  • Discriminating Between Numbers of Objects
  • Searching Behavior

History of Dogs Counting

Christian Agrillo is a scientist at the University of Padua in Italy.  He studies how different species process information. In his studies, he tests the math abilities of his undergraduate students against fish and the students are the ones needing good luck. 

Agrillo believes that his studies are demonstrating the evolutionary roots of our abilities that have been evolving over 400 million years. There are a variety of animals that have a numerical system even though they do not have our vocabulary to label their understandings of numeration and math concepts. 

For animals, the ability to discriminate magnitude may be a survival skill. For example, the ability to determine magnitude can help a fish find the larger school, a bee in pollination of flowers or, for frogs, the number of croaks helps them find a mate. With dogs, some believe that a sense of numeracy might help a mother dog to know if a pup in her litter is missing.

When it comes to dogs, there have been questions as to whether or not the development of number sense has been as critical to their survival as other species. After all, dogs have been evolving in close relationship to humans, which may have diminished some of their needs to develop this particular cognitive skill to survive. Panels of experts have identified the breeds known to demonstrate the most intelligence in training, work, and obedience. Border Collies are number one followed by Poodles,  German Shepherds,  Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Shetland Sheepdogs and Labrador Retrievers.

The Science of Dogs Counting

While there have been studies on different species and their number sense, counting is another skill altogether. Counting relies on a concept of ordinality which is an understanding of sequencing. To count, there must be a recognition that one is more than nothing, that one is followed by two and so on. 

Researchers have been testing the counting abilities of domestic dogs. The classic study is one in which treats are dropped into opaque bowls. The dogs could discriminate between no food in the bowl and one treat in the bowl. That was all. It was concluded that dogs can tell the difference between 0 and 1 and that is all. Studies with wolves have concluded that they are able to detect greater quantities, suggesting that the skill was needed to survive but lost with domestication. 

In another study, a researcher trained her dog to discriminate the quantities of shapes. In this investigation, she trained her collie to recognize shapes on a magnetic board. When detecting the board with the most shapes, the collie knocked the board over. Other researchers have claimed that the study did not demonstrate an ability to count or to have numerical reasoning ability. Rather, the use of food reinforcers played a role in the dog's attention to the greater quantities. 

As disappointing as it may seem, it has been demonstrated that the domesticated dog can count from 0 to 1. An ability to count without training and the use of food reinforcers has not been demonstrated. 

Training Your Dog to Count

Teaching your dog to count is considered to be a trick of moderate difficulty. If you want your dog to speak to count, you will need to obtain a clicker and treats as training tools. In this method, you will want your dog to bark and then stop barking based on your signal. You can then have your dog bark any number of times to show others his counting skill. 

To begin, have your dog sit, facing you while you hold a treat in your left hand and hold up their right hand. Have the dog speak or bark once, then give the dog the treat. Repeat. Then move to counting to two. When the dog barks twice, lower your right hand and avert your eyes. 

Practice several times a day until your dog realizes that the barking must continue until you lower your hand. Gradually fade holding up your hand to your eye gaze so that the dog's counting is signaled by your eyes. The clicker can be used to teach your dog to bark or speak as you begin the training for the trick.

How to React to Your Dog Counting

  • Praise and reward your dog during training activities.
  • Be patient with your dog.
  • Use clear and consistent signals with your dog.
  • Use small bits of food as motivators for learning tricks.

Safety Tips for Smart Dogs:

  • Do not expect your dog to know when enough is enough food.
  • Store food in containers and places that they cannot get into and overeat.
  • Maintain clear routines with your dog to maintain obedient behavior.

Tell Us About Your Counting Pooch!