Development of Cognitive Traits in Dogs

Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM, CCRT

Cognition: the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.

There is an increasing interest in the study of canine cognition – both as it relates to a better understanding of our closest companions, and as it helps us better understand ourselves. With funding from the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF), investigators are specifically exploring the cognitive traits of dogs that predict success in various working roles. Knowing what traits comprise a successful working dog and at what age those traits are established could vastly improve the efficiency of breeding, raising, and training working dogs. Improving these processes would mean less financial investment in dogs with a low chance of success in a certain role, decreased stress on potential working dogs since they can be directed into roles that fit their natural talents, and less wait time for the humans in need of a working or assistance dog.

Investigators have previously demonstrated that testing adult dogs with the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ®), In-For-Training test (IFT - a standardized temperament test used by Canine Companions for Independence)1, and Dog Cognition Test Battery (DCTB)2 can be useful to identify dogs with the highest chances of success in working roles such as assistance dog and detection dog. But at what age are these desired traits first displayed and do they change over time as a dog matures? To answer these important questions, CHF-funded investigator Dr. Emily Bray is studying potential assistance dogs bred and raised by Canine Companions for Independence (CHF Grant: 02518: The Effects of Early Life Experience on Working Dog Temperament and Cognition). She previously described the cognitive characteristics of these puppies at 8-10 weeks of age.3 The latest results from her study were recently published in Animal Cognition4 and describe the stability of these traits over time.

160 Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador-Golden Retriever crosses from 65 different litters were tested at 8-10 weeks of age using the Dog Cognition Development Battery (DCDB – a modified version of the DCTB used for adult dogs). Puppies were then raised by volunteer foster homes until they returned to Canine Companions for Independence at 21 months of age for repeat DCDB testing and to begin their formal training.

Performance on the majority of DCDB tasks improved with age, especially those that involved memory, inhibitory control (the ability to defer immediate reward and make a choice that would ultimately be more productive), and reversal learning (the ability to learn a new response when a previously preferred solution was no longer available). (See “Puppy Cognition – the Making of a Brilliant Canine Mind” for a full description of the DCDB tasks.) Behaviors that were socially motivated, such as retrieving, looking toward humans, and using communicative cues, were also performed better at the older age. Tasks for which performance was relatively stable at both ages included laterality (right or left sidedness, similar to human right or left handedness) and sensory discrimination tasks (success at seeing or smelling the location of a food reward after its initial placement).

These results suggest that canine cognitive traits develop relatively early in life and are stable over time. Additional research will allow us to correlate the traits of successful adult working dogs to traits in a young adult and similar traits in a puppy, providing a valuable and objective way to select dogs for various working roles. This information could also be used to support successful pet adoptions, matching dogs to homes and families that best fit their personalities. The AKC Canine Health Foundation and its donors remain committed to this important research which directly impacts the wellbeing of working dogs and all dogs. Additional research is underway to explore how maternal style and environmental factors affect cognition. Learn more at


  1. Bray, EE, Levy, KM, Kennedy, BS, Duffy, DL, Serpell, JA, & MacLean, EL. (2019). Predictive Models of Assistance Dog Training Outcomes Using the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire and a Standardized Temperament Evaluation. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6.
  2. MacLean, E. L., Herrmann, E., Suchindran, S., & Hare, B. (2017). Individual differences in cooperative communicative skills are more similar between dogs and humans than chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, 126, 41–51.
  3. Bray, E. E., Gruen, M. E., Gnanadesikan, G. E., Horschler, D. J., Levy, K. M., Kennedy, B. S., Hare, B. A., & MacLean, E. L. (2020). Cognitive characteristics of 8- to 10-week-old assistance dog puppies. Animal Behaviour. 166, 193–206. 
  4. Bray, E. E., Gruen, M. E., Gnanadesikan, G. E., Horschler, D. J., Levy, K. M., Kennedy, B. S., Hare, B. A., & MacLean, E. L. (2020). Dog cognitive development: A longitudinal study across the first 2 years of life. Animal Cognition.


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