6 min read


Can Dogs Understand Quantity?



6 min read


Can Dogs Understand Quantity?


If your dog had to choose between a handful of treats or just one treat, which one do you think they would pick? Does that mean that your dog can count? 

Dogs have so many amazing abilities. They can detect the faintest of scents and can hear things far in the distance. We rely on dogs to help us to do our work in the field or on the farm. We rely on service dogs to help us to overcome our personal challenges and environmental barriers. And we have a companionship with dogs that feeds us emotionally. We know our dogs are intelligent and loyal creatures. Does their range of abilities include the ability to comprehend and express their understanding of quantity?


Signs Your Dog Understands Quantity

Your mathematical mutt will demonstrate an understanding of quantity in specific ways, depending on how you are working with your dog. For example, it may be that you work with your dog in the field and you find that your dog is able to search for and retrieve the correct number of decoys. Or, you may find that your dog has an awareness of expected numbers of treats, pausing when less than expected is provided to him. 

If you and your dog like to vocalize together, it may be that you will sing words to your dog and your dog will howl or bark back with sounds that match the same number of syllables you just made. For example, your "I love you" might be answered with a "Wroo - Wroo - Wroo" from your lovable pet. As we live with our dogs and have activities we do with them, they demonstrate behavior patterns that some interpret as an understanding of quantity.

Our dogs communicate with their bodies. What are the body signs that your dog is thinking about math? Those body signs will depend on the activity you're engaged in. You will note that your dog is alert when engaged in a quantitative activity. Your dog may indicate their understanding of quantity in their bark. Depending on the signals you are using with your dog, you may find that the paw is raised as a response to the activity. Of course, if the activity is fun, there may be some play bowing as the dog engages with the quantitative play.

Dogs are smart and you may be wondering if the dog is thinking when presented with a quantitative task. The dog may keep their eyes focused and appear to be watching intently with ears raised. Your dog may perform the quantitative task and then sit, looking to you attentively, waiting for your next request. It could be that the dog will demonstrate quantitative thinking by staring or by a search and selection behavior. For example, it may be that there is a change in a quantity that draws the dog's attention. On the other hand, it may be that the dog is looking for a number of objects and you will observe the dog searching for the number of objects to the task.

Body Language

Some signs to watch for if your pooch is gauging quantity include:

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Raise Ears
  • Paw Raised

Other Signs

Other signs that your dog may show while figuring out quantity are:

  • Recognising Familiar Situations
  • Searching Behaviors
  • Tapping Of The Paw Or Barking To The Correct Number
  • Imitating The Handler

History of Dogs Understanding Quantity


Quantity is a mathematical concept that helps humans and many species with survival. Scientists have been learned that understandings of quantity are found in insects, frogs, birds, cats, hyenas, chimpanzees and. possibly, dogs. 

Concepts of math begin with the recognition that something is present or absent. From there, number sense evolves. Number sense involves a recognition of comparisons of more and less. This called subitizing. This is an ability to evolves in infancy with humans. Considering that dogs are believed to have the mental capacities of a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, it is believed that dogs can discern larger quantities. 

However, unlike other species, the dog is not as dependent on quantity recognition for survival as their wolf ancestors. Studies have shown that wolves have better skills for discriminating quantity than the domesticated dog. It is believed that the dog's domestication has diminished the need for this skill. 

That being said, there are dogs who have demonstrated that they can solve simple arithmetic problems. It is not known as to the extent training was involved in the development of the simple math skills or if the animals arrived at correct answers through incidental learning experiences. 

The dogs who have been identified as the smartest are those who were also bred as working dogs. These dogs may need to rely on a sense of quantity to be successful in herding stock or retrieving game. The dogs identified by experts as having evolved as the most intelligent include, in order of ranking: Border Collies as number one, Poodles are number two, next comes German Shepherds; followed by Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Shetland Sheepdogs and lastly, Labrador Retrievers.

Science Behind Dogs Understanding Quanitity


Studies have been designed to examine the ability of dogs to demonstrate quantitative reasoning ability. The studies were modeled from research on the mathematical reasoning abilities of infants. In this method, called preferential viewing, the infant will spend more time looking at stimuli that is novel. 

For example, the infant is shown one doll and watches the experimenter place the doll behind a screen. A second doll is shown to the child and placed behind the screen. When the screen is removed, the child expects to see two dolls. 

On some trials, the experimenter secretly removes one of the dolls. If the child has an understanding of quantity, the child will spend more time staring at the doll in the condition in which the doll was removed. 

When this experiment is replicated with dogs, the procedure is used but using treats instead of dolls. If a dog can understand quantity, the dog would spend more time staring if the screen is removed and the second treat is missing. In a variation of the experiment, a third treat was secretly added. 

The dogs again spent more time looking at the surprising number of treats. These findings have been interpreted as demonstrating that dogs have an understanding of quantity and, possibly the ability to do simple math for problems such as 1+1=2 or 2+1=3.

Training Your Dog to Better Understand Quantity


The owner of Cooper the counting Shih Tzu, Kirsty Forrester, has shared the steps to take to train your dog to play counting games. Your dog will need to know how to touch on command when you point to a target. Your dog can touch with the nose or a paw. 

First, train to touch on command. Next, assemble the supplies for the training and math game. Start with 3 items the dog will learn to count, such as tennis balls. You will also need three targets. The targets can be buttons that you put numbers on, switches, or even flash cards with numbers. You will need plenty of small treats and patience to take time for your dog to learn and practice this new skill. 

Let the training begin. Start by placing one item in front of the dog along with the target for the number 1. Say, "One". When your dog presses the target for the number 1,  say, "Good dog" and reward your dog. Repeat and practice until your dog consistently points to the target for 1 when you give the command, "One". 

Now move to "Two". Place two items in front of the dog and the target with the number 2. Say, "Two" and reward your dog when the correct target for 2 is chosen. If your dog is having difficulty choosing the number two target, you might need to reset by having the dog lie down or sit. 

Practice with longer sequences. Train with long sequences of each number and then go back and forth between the numbers. In other words, train on the number one for a long sequence. They train on the number two for a long sequence. Then go back and forth between these training sequences. 

Once you feel your dog is confident with number one and two, you can proceed to the number three. If you want to make more challenge for your dog, you can try moving the target items around or place in different locations in the room. Some believe that dogs can count up to four or five. It will depend on your dog if you can to count that high with them. 

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Safety Tips When Dealing with Dogs Understanding Quantity:

  1. Do not assume your dog will make decisions based on understandings of quantity.
  2. When working with your dog, use clear signals.
  3. Keep training intervals brief and positive.

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 03/18/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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