Do dogs understand quantity? | Canine sense of quantity

Dogs can record basic numerical quantities and rely on similar brain regions to humans, according to brain scans.

Dogs do math, dog in class.
Dogs do math

  • This result proves that the neuronal foundations of our complex mathematical abilities originated early in the evolutionary history of mammals, scientists say.

Can other animals do math?

Studies in recent years have shown that many animal species can distinguish roughly between different sets of objects. This seems to make sense because the numerical quantity perception enables the animals, for example, to better assess groups of enemies or food items. 

This ability seems to be widespread in mammals and has already been proven in dogs: The four-legged friends can differentiate between quantities from different numbers of objects.

How do you develop number sense?

As far as humans are concerned, research on babies has shown that our sense of quantity can develop very early. This is the basis for the later development of the higher mathematical abilities of our species. According to brain scans, humans process the numerical impressions in the so-called parietal cortex, an area in the parietal lobe of our brain. 

This is probably the case with primates in general, according to research on monkeys. However, these neuronal examinations were carried out on animals that had already been trained to recognise quantities. 

Canine sense of quantity

The researchers led by Gregory Berns from Emory University in Atlanta say that it is still unclear on which areas of the brain the processing of quantity ratios in non-primates and untrained animals is based.

The scientists have now chosen man's best friend for a more detailed investigation of neuronal processes in animal quantity measurement: Eleven dogs took part in the tests that had previously not been trained to measure quantities. 

However, the four-legged test subjects were accustomed to lying relaxed in a brain scanner. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), this device can show which regions of the brain become active during certain tasks or sensory stimuli.

What happens in the dog's head?

While the dogs were resting in the brain scanner, the researchers presented them with combinations of different point sets on a screen. 

Dogs understand quantity research.
Dogs understand quantity research.

For example, they saw a group of four points compared to a unit of eight small circles. As a control, they used images comprising two different looking groups with the same number of dots.

Dogs understand quantity research 1.
Of the 11 dogs scanned, three did not exhibit ratio-dependent activation.

How smart are dogs compared to humans?

It turned out that if the test animals looked at a combination in which the number of points was unequal, their brain showed a distinct activity pattern: As in humans, nerve regions in the parietal cortex began to work. 

Gregory Berns sums up: We were thus able to show that dogs also use this brain region for spontaneous processing of numerical data.

According to him, humans and dogs are separated by about 80 million years of evolution.Our results suggest that the basic numerical abilities are based on a common neuronal mechanism that goes back at least that far, said Berns. 

In conclusion, the scientists emphasize: By understanding neuronal mechanisms - both in humans and in different animal species - we can gain insights into the development and function of our brain, says co-author Stella Lourenco from Emory University.

Canine sense of quantity: evidence for numerical ratio-dependent activation in parietotemporal cortex, can dogs understand quantity?.

  1. Lauren S. Aulet, can dogs understand quantity?.
  1. Veronica C. Chiu, can dogs understand quantity?.
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  1. Mark Spivak, can dogs understand quantity?.
  1. Stella F. Lourenco can dogs understand quantity?.
  1. Gregory S. Berns, can dogs understand quantity?.
Published: December 2019,, Do dogs understand quantity?.