Can Dogs Understand numbers?

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Introduction

Do dogs understand numbers? When questioning the understanding of the dog, we are asking if dogs have the ability to understand magnitude. We might also be wondering if dogs are able to perform simple operations. 

Is it possible to understand numbers without the ability to name them? How might the understanding of numbers be present in the dog and other species? There are many anecdotes of dogs performing feats of math reasoning. Research has been striving to understand the intelligences of human and canine. When it comes to math, our dogs may be more calculating than we first thought.

Signs Your Dog Understands Numbers

When dogs show their smarts, they are engaged, attentive, confident and appear to be happy in their exchange with their handlers. Those activities in which dogs are asked to show an understanding of numbers are typically situations in which there has been training with plenty of praise and reinforcement. 

The dog will show signs of obedient interaction with the handler. The dog will be attentive, compliant with commands and look to the handler for rewards. The dog will look at objects upon cueing. Depending on how the animal was trained, the understanding of numbers would be shown with a behavior such as barking, pointing to a target, or searching and retrieving a target.

Smart and obedient dogs show their good behavior in a number of ways with their bodies. The dog will appear alert and attentive to the handler. Their ears may be up. Their head may turn in anticipation of a command or treat. The dog may also blink as a sign of acceptance. The tail may be extended straight. An obedient dog will be responsive to commands but in control. If excited or trained to respond by barking, there may be some begging and barking as part of the demonstration of the mathematical task.

Some have suggested that dogs have not only an understanding of numbers but also some mathematical constructs for quantity, density, magnitude, and change. These understandings are demonstrated by the dog's apparent recognition of changes in stimuli as noted when the dog will make choices in structured games, engage in searching behaviors, or when the dog will signal a specified number of responses. The dog will examine the situation and follow a routine to reach a solution. Typically the behaviors of the dogs have been trained and the signs of training are noted in the dog's execution of the mathematical tasks.

Body Language

Signs that indicate that your dog is understanding a numerical task include:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Blinking
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Other signs to watch for to see if your dog understands numbers are:
  • Following established routines
  • Signaling discrimination between numbers
  • Searching for patterns or numbers of objects
  • Stopping and staring at novel or unique numerical problems

The History of Dogs Understanding Numbers

The history of the dog is one of evolution in relation to humans. Centuries ago, the wolf survived in pack families and hunted for survival. The ability to detect numbers in the sense of magnitude, distance and size may have been essential to detect food and danger. 

As the wolf lived with man and became domesticated, so, too did needs for the canine to rely on numerical understandings to survive. As dogs were bred to serve different purposes for man, dogs were transformed in their physical characteristics. Dogs that were bred for hunting have a heightened sense of smell and legs of a length to help them detect their game. Other dogs bred for herding having a breeding that heightened their ability to work as a partner to man. Then again, there are breeds of dogs that are eager to please, making them easy to train. 

As the breeding has changed dogs over the centuries, there are breeds known to be of more intelligence and more amenable to the training of complex behavior sequences. The American Kennel Club has identified the smartest dogs and reminds dog owners to be conscious of the dog's inclinations. The owner must also put in the work to be a good trainer for the dog. The Border Collie, Poodle, and German Shepherd have been ranked as the top three dogs for being the smartest. Alas, the hounds are ranked as the least smart because their breeding has caused them to be exceptional only in their scent detection aptitudes.

While the intelligence of dogs is connected to their evolution with man, the importance of math for survival and reason continues to be an important skill for the survival of a range of species. Believe it or not, we could not get through a day without math. 

Scientists have demonstrated that number sense is present in bees, guppies, chicks, frogs, lions, hyenas, wolves, and chimpanzees. Babies as young as five months demonstrate awareness of numbers. It seems that there is more to survival than knowing whether or not something is present. Understanding of quantity is important for recognizing the patterns in the world that can make a difference in mating, finding one's way home, or finding food. 

Science of Dogs Understanding Numbers

Studies have been conducted with dogs to demonstrate their understanding of numbers. First, it is important to consider what is meant by understanding numbers. Studies have shown that dogs have a sense of number or quantity. These studies were similar to those done with infants in which the number of dolls behind a screen were altered.

If the child had a sense of number, the child would spend more time staring at the altered number of dolls. Similarly, in experiments with the dogs, the canines were shown a treat that was placed behind a screen. The researcher would then add another treat. 

In conditions in which the experimenter removed a treat, thereby altering the dog's expectation as to the number of treats behind the screen, it was found the dogs would spend more time staring at the altered quantity of treats. These experiments have shown that dogs do have a sense of number. 

But can dogs actually count? In another study, the researchers replicated the study with the treat behind the screen with 27 domestic dogs. The dogs reliably discriminated between 0 and 1 treat. With greater numbers of treats, the dogs did not reliably demonstrate an understanding of quantity. 

They replicated the study with another dog, Sedona but using magnetic shapes. When Sedona made the correct quantity choices, a treat was beneath the screen. Sedona was very accurate at detecting quantity with this procedure. 

There are many anecdotes of dogs who perform behaviors suggesting they understand number. For example, a hunter may point to the dog in the field who searches for and retrieves the correct number of decoys. An owner may sing words to the dog to have the dog respond by "singing" similar patterns of sounds. One must also consider that dogs can be trained to discriminate numbers of objects. 

Training Dogs to Understand Numbers

All training begins with a good relationship with the dog in which the owner is understanding of the dog's disposition, provides socialization, play, consistent signals and positive reinforcements. To train your dog to discriminate numbers, the dog will first need to learn how to signal on command, either by pointing or barking. You will need three objects the dog will be trained to count. You will also need three buttons that have the number on them. Make sure you have plenty of treats. Understand this will take time, patience and repetition.

Begin by placing one item in front of the dog along with the button that has the numeral 1 on it. Say "one".  When the dog points to the button, reward the dog. Repeat and practice in different training sessions until the dog is consistently pointing to the number 1 upon your command.

Now go to the number 2. If your dog seems confused, try using a sit or lay down command to reset. Be patient as the dog discriminates two from one objects and points to the correct numerals.Then return to using long sequences with each number. You may then proceed to the number 3. 

In time, your dog will learn to discriminate the numbers. This learning is indicative of advancement in mathematical understanding from a number sense to number discrimination that is a more complex level of understanding.

How to React to Your Dog Learning Numbers

  • Be patient as your dog is practicing number recognition skills.
  • Reward successes and ignore misses.
  • Use praise and positive reinforcers during training.
  • Understand some dogs learn more quickly than others.

Tips for Training Success:

  • Do not expect your dog to make decisions based on math.
  • Do not become frustrated when training your dog.
  • Do not overwhelm your dog with complex tasks.

Tell Us About Your Mathematical Mutt!