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The world from a dog's point of view: A review and synthesis of dog cognition research

posted on 2023-05-22, 14:48 authored by Bensky, MK, Gosling, SD, Sinn, DL

As the first domesticated species, dogs have lived alongside humans for tens of thousands of years. Mitochondrial DNA evidence indicates that around 100,000 years ago dogs began to evolve away from the common ancestor of the modern-day wolf (Vila, 1997). The exact timing and extent of early hominid impact is not clear but it is likely this evolutionary divergence was facilitated by individual canines developing an increased threshold for being in the presence of humans, thus increasing the potential for interspecies’ interaction (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001). True domestication likely began around 14,000 years BP and by the time of the Ancient Egyptians (3000 years BP) numerous separate breeds of dogs had been established and were bred for a number of specific purposes (Galibert, Quignon, Hitte, & André, 2011). Ancient civilizations used dogs for different aspects of hunting, as guards, and for companionship; today dogs are still used for these same roles. In addition, humans now breed and train dogs for a multitude of additional tasks including helping the physically impaired, identifying disease, and helping to maintain public safety by finding drugs and explosives. From living on the outskirts of human settlements and taking advantage of our waste, to sleeping in our beds and eating directly off our tables, dogs occupy a unique ecological niche in the modern world.

Over the last 20 years, there has been increasing interest in canine cognition. A number of topics drive this interest. First, the dog’s interspecies communication abilities have been particularly fascinating to researchers, and investigations into the development of canine interspecies communication have led to theoretical models of how social cognition may have developed in early humans (e.g. Hare, 2007). Second, dogs have also been used as a model for understanding the development of human cognitive deficiencies. For example, researchers have used studies on Canine

Cognitive Dysfunction to further our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease in humans (Head, Cotman, & Milgram, 2000). Third, the relative ease of accessing subjects has led to dogs being increasingly seen as viable subjects for researching a number of fundamental areas of animal behavior such as memory (e.g. Fujita, Morisaki, Takaoka, Maeda, & Hori, 2012), foraging behavior (e.g. Fiset, 2007), and social learning (e.g. Mersmann, Tomasello, Call, Kaminski, & Taborsky, 2011). Thus, beyond learning more about dog cognition specifically, researchers are increasingly utilizing dogs as a model species to provide insight into cognition in both human and other nonhuman species. Fourth, the dog’s prevalence in human society presents unique opportunities for applied research related to cognition in such areas as working-dog performance (e.g. Gazit, Goldblatt, & Terkel, 2005a) and animal welfare (e.g. Burman et al., 2011). Finally, a large public interest in understanding “man’s best friend” has also contributed toward making the dog an attractive research subject (Morell, 2009).

Research on canine cognition is being done in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including ethology, evolutionary anthropology, behavioral analytics, developmental psychology, and neuroscience. As a consequence, research efforts in different disciplines have often followed independent paths. Each of these discipline-bound studies is valuable, but each provides only a relatively narrow glimpse of the overall cognitive abilities of dogs. This fragmented approach also draws attention away from how different biological, ecological, and evolutionary aspects of cognition may interact with one another to aid the dog’s ability to make decisions and solve problems. To date, there has been little effort to review and summarize what these numerous studies have taught us about canine cognition as a whole (previous reviews have focused on subfacets of canine cognition, predominantly social cognition: e.g. Kubinyi, Pongrácz, & Miklósi, 2009; Topál, Miklósi, et al., 2009; Udell & Wynne, 2008; though see Miklósi, 2008). Thus, the goal of the present paper is to provide the most comprehensive review to date of previous research on dog cognition.

Specifically, we (1) identify major trends in the literature, in terms of the characteristics of the dog populations studied and the areas of cognition researched, (2) identify the major topics of research in the dog cognition, (3) summarize the previous findings within each of these topics, and (4) make suggestions for future cognition research. Finally, we will draw the findings together to offer six broad conclusions about the field and identify questions that remain to be addressed. Thus, this article is meant to serve as a centralized resource for those interested in the growing field of dog cognition and to help guide future work in canine research and training practices.


Publication title

Advances in the Study of Behavior




HJ Brockman et al






School of Natural Sciences


Academic Press

Place of publication

Oxford, UK



Rights statement

Copyright 2013 Elsevier

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in the environmental sciences

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