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Why the Number of Dog Cognition Studies Is Rapidly Rising

Economics as well as psychological interest have spurred dog behavior research.

Key points

  • There has been an exponential increase in the number of canine cognitive studies appearing in the scientific literature since the 1990s.
  • During the second half of the 20th century, canine behavior research was suppressed because dogs were considered to be an "unnatural species."
  • The high cost of maintaining lab animals initially caused researchers to turn to pet dogs as a pool of subjects for animal cognitive studies.
Nestlé licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 will
Source: Nestlé licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 will

I got a note from a friend and colleague of mine which read in part:

"Since I retired I have had much more time to poke around through the research literature. I've noticed a massive increase in the number of scientific studies which look at the problem-solving ability of dogs and other aspects of their cognition which have been published since the early 1990s. To confirm this I did a quick survey using data which I gathered from Google Scholar. I calculated the average annual number of dog behavior publications in five-year blocks from 1985 to 2020. It really shows an exponential rise in the number of studies over that time. It may just be coincidence, but since the rise in the number of studies seems to start following the publication of your book, and there wasn't much canine cognitive research out there before your work on dog intelligence, I was wondering if you think that your book played any part in stimulating that surge of research."

The Rising Interest in Canine Behavioral Research

I have graphed the data that my friend collected and it really does show a massive and rapid increase in the number of canine cognition and behavioral studies in recent years.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

I remember when I was doing the research and the literature reviews that ended up forming the basis for my book The Intelligence of Dogs, I was actually quite frustrated by the fact that there were so few dog behavioral studies that had been published between the 1960s and 1990. There certainly are a lot more scientific studies on this topic being published annually now. Although I am flattered by my friend's suggestion, I don't think that my book was the primary stimulus for all of this activity.

My contribution to the study of canine cognition in that book centers primarily around two points. One was the basic ranking of dog breeds based on their working and obedience intelligence. The other was my demonstration that it was possible to modify tests that were originally designed for young human children so that these measures could be used to determine the mental abilities of dogs. There are several advantages to this particular methodology. Primarily it allows canine cognitive researchers to start out with a test that has already been validated for a particular mental ability. In addition, many of these tests are scored in terms of human mental age, and that permits researchers to compare the cognitive abilities of dogs to that of toddler-aged kids. This has caused some investigators to start thinking along the lines that dogs' abilities might truly mimic those in young human children, an insight that has led to some interesting lines of investigation.

However, I'm not sure that that was enough of a contribution to really start the ball rolling. I believe that there are a number of reasons why we have increasing numbers of dog behavioral studies — one of these is historical while others are economic in nature.

An Unnatural Species

Back in the 1960s, when I was working toward my doctoral degree, only a few studies of dog behavior appeared in the scientific literature each year. Almost all of these studies came out of the Bar Harbor Labs in Maine, and most were directly attributable to John Paul Scott, John Fuller, and their associates.

Other than the case of that particular laboratory, it was very difficult to get research funding for studies on dogs because the consensus among psychologists who studied animals was that dogs were an "artificial" or "unnatural" species, meaning that they were essentially created by humans through controlled breeding that altered their genetic makeup. This made dogs uninteresting to psychologists of the time because they claimed to be only interested in what they called "natural behavior." That stigma, which maintained the dogs were not an appropriate species for behavioral studies explained why canine studies were so few. That stigma persisted into the 1990s when at last it began to fade.

Expensive Research

There was, however, a more potent force at work to stimulate the study of canine behavior. In recent times, there has been a decline in the amount of behavioral research using the more typical laboratory species — rats and monkeys.

This is not because of lessened interest in how animals think but simply as a matter of economics. It costs a lot to house, feed, breed and maintain laboratory animals. The per diem cost of maintaining lab animals can be quite significant. There are also veterinary expenses and a whole raft of regulations for animal welfare that must be met. In addition, there are significant political and security issues, since animal testing labs are often the target of animal rights activists. All of this has put pressure on researchers over the past three decades to try to find an alternate pool of subjects, which would not require huge research grants, but could still allow interesting and important experiments to be conducted on the mentality of nonhuman animals. So investigators began to turn to the testing of companion animals. Specifically, they began to consider pet dogs that lived with their owners — owners who, of course, would cover the cost of their pet's maintenance.

Proof that this model could work was provided around the early 1990s by François Doré and Sylvain Gagnon of Lavalle University in Québec. They were interested in a complex cognitive ability called "object permanence" which appears in young human children sometime around 18 months to 2 years of age. They constructed portable equipment that allowed family dogs to be tested in their homes or other non-laboratory settings. In this way, they were able to demonstrate that this cognitive ability exists in dogs. Their positive findings also hinted at the possibility that there might be a large array of similar cognitive abilities residing in canines, a fact that made them an interesting (not unnatural) species to study.

The use of family pet dogs for canine behavioral investigations is now accepted practice for researchers around the world. This includes the laboratory of Brian Hare at Duke University, that of Gregory Berns at Emory University and the highly productive dog behavior research laboratory at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest which is even called the "Family Dog Project."

So the increased flow of research concerning dog behavior really began as a matter of economic necessity since it was simply too expensive to do complex cognitive research on other species that require laboratory rearing and housing. Fortunately, dogs are a cooperative species, and because these are pet dogs, they are particularly easy to work with and provide affordable animal subjects for testing. Since dogs have mental abilities equivalent to those of a 2- to 3-year-old human being, they provide an attractive array of cognitive skills and predispositions which have now caught the interest of psychological investigators interested in animal cognition. My expectation is that these factors will cause the flow of canine behavioral research to continue at a high rate for quite a while.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

References

Coren, S. (1994). The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. New York: Free Press (pp. i-vii, 1-271).

Sylvain Gagnon and Frangois Y. Dore (1994). Cross-Sectional Study of Object Permanence in Domestic Puppies (Canis familiaris}. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108 (3) 220-232.

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