Puppy Cognition – the Making of a Brilliant Canine Mind

Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM, CCRT

Cognition is described as the ability to use perception, memory, attention, and reasoning to assimilate information into knowledge and understanding. Scientists now know that a single construct such as general intelligence does not adequately explain the variation seen in cognitive abilities within and between species such as humans and dogs. The AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) and its donors have invested in ground-breaking research to explore the cognitive abilities of our canine companions – particularly those that work closely with us as detection dogs, service dogs, assistance dogs, and more.

With funding from CHF Grant 1995: Understanding the Flexibility and Limitations of How Dogs Acquire Knowledge and Understanding: Application to Service Dog Emotional Health and Selection, investigators examined dogs’ temperamental and cognitive traits and how they might be used to predict an individual dog’s chance of success as a service or detection dog.1 Successful service dogs were more likely to engage in eye contact with the human tester when faced with an unsolvable task or when social interaction was interrupted and scored higher on inferential reasoning tasks. Successful detection dogs scored higher on tests of sensitivity to human gestures and short-term memory. Investigators also showed that existing cognitive and temperament tests can help predict success in these working roles.

This research is critical to improve the training and selection process for working dogs. Which cognitive traits predict success in various working roles? How can we use each dog’s cognitive style to maximize their learning? At what age do these cognitive traits first appear and when are they fully developed? Are these traits stable over the dog’s lifetime or do they change throughout puppyhood, adolescence, and maturity? With funding from CHF Grant 02518: The Effects of Early Life Experience on Working Dog Temperament and Cognition, investigators are collaborating with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to explore these issues in young puppies.

Photo courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence

The latest research results published in Animal Behaviour2 describe the cognitive characteristics of eight to ten-week-old puppies whelped at the CCI headquarters in Santa Rosa, CA or in local volunteer breeder caretaker homes. The puppies stayed with their dam and littermates until approximately eight weeks of age. At that age, they received veterinary care at the CCI headquarters before going to individual puppy raiser homes. It was at this time that each puppy completed the Dog Cognitive Development Battery – a series of 14 tasks completed over three days in a 45-minute session each day. Results represent the first description of cognitive skills in such a large group of puppies at this young age.

For a full description of the Dog Cognitive Development Battery, including task descriptions and detailed results, see Table 1.

Results demonstrate that by eight to ten weeks of age, puppies show perceptual discrimination and memory after short delays. They exhibit social communicative skills, flexible thinking, and self-control, but all to lesser degrees than adult dogs. Investigators conclude that dogs appear to be biologically programmed for communication with humans and that these skills show up early in development. Since many of these traits are linked to success in various working dog roles, we can study the stability of these traits over time and how they correlate with ultimate success in a working role. The AKC Canine Health Foundation and its donors continue to support ground-breaking research like this to help us better understand and better care for our closest animal companions. Learn more at www.akcchf.org

Table 1: Summary of the Dog Cognitive Development Battery and results published in Animal Behaviour2

 Task  Description and Results
 Retrieval This task evaluated a puppy’s willingness to cooperatively engage in fetch with a human partner. All puppies had a tendency to chase and pick up the ball, which matches results from previous studies, even those involving a non-retriever breed, the German Shepherd Dog.
 Laterality Investigators tracked paw preference when the puppy was stepping on or off of a platform. This left or right-handedness is believed to reflect lateralization within the brain and has been linked to temperamental reactivity in adult dogs. Half of the tested puppies showed a significant preference for one side, although left and right were not statistically different. 
 Human interest This task tested a puppy’s desire to attend to a human that spoke to them. Puppies spent approximately 6 seconds looking at the human’s face during each 30 second trial and approximately 18 seconds looking at the human’s face during each 30 second play break.
Cylinder  a) Inhibitory control: This task tested a puppy’s ability to defer immediate reward and make a choice that would ultimately be more productive. A food reward was placed behind a plastic barrier. To be successful, puppies had to defer the natural choice of moving directly toward the treat and instead go around the barrier to reach the food reward. Both transparent and opaque barriers were tested. Puppies went directly around the barrier approximately half of the repetitions. They were more successful if the barrier was opaque. If the barrier was transparent, they would spend more time bumping into the barrier attempting to get the visible food reward before learning to go around.
b) Cognitive flexibility: This task tested a puppy’s response when a previously preferred solution was no longer available. The food reward was placed behind an opaque barrier and the side to which each puppy preferentially went around in the inhibitory control task was blocked with clear plastic. To be successful, the puppy had to go to the other side of the barrier. Most tested puppies demonstrated a strong preference to go left versus right. When that side was blocked, they went directly to the open side approximately 33% of the time. Puppies with the strongest side preference performed the worst when that side was blocked.

For both of these tests, older puppies solved the problem faster than younger puppies. However, the tests did not discriminate if they were faster at problem solving or if they were simply able to move faster around the barrier once they did realize the solution.
 Unsolvable task This task tested a puppy’s inclination to persist at an unsolvable problem versus looking to a nearby human for help. Food reward was placed inside a clear, locked container. During each 30 second trial, tested puppies spent an average of only 1 second looking at the nearby human’s face and an average of 13 seconds trying to manipulate the container. This agrees with results from previous studies demonstrating that young puppies do orient to humans for assistance, but not as much as adult dogs.
 Gesture use These tasks tested a puppy’s ability to use various communicative cues to find hidden reward. For each task, the examiner showed the puppy a food reward, but the puppy’s view was blocked while the food was hidden in one of two possible containers. The puppy was then able to see both containers and was given one of the following cues.
a) Communicative marker: The examiner obviously placed a yellow block next to the cup containing a hidden food reward. Tested puppies used this cue approximately 75% of the repetitions, performing better than expected by chance.
b) Arm pointing: The examiner obviously looked at and pointed to the cup containing food. Tested puppies again performed better than expected by chance and used the arm pointing gesture in approximately 70% of the repetitions.
c) Odor control: No cue was given from the examiner. Tested puppies chose the cup containing food reward as expected by random chance. This indicated that smelling the food reward in the cup did not influence their response to the communicative marker or arm pointing.
 Novel object This task tested a puppy’s response to an unfamiliar object - in this case, a motion-activated, motorized stuffed cat. Puppy reactions varied along the spectrum of shy to bold.
 Working memory This task tested a puppy’s ability to recall the location of a hidden food reward after various periods of time. Tested puppies performed better than expected by chance at 5 and 10 second intervals. Only one third of the puppies did well enough at these time intervals to attempt 15 and 20 second delays. Again, the puppies tested at these longer intervals performed better than expected by chance.
 Discrimination a) Visual: Puppies chose which of two hidden plates contained a food reward after watching the examiner place kibble on one of them.
b) Auditory: Puppies chose which of two hidden metal bowls contained a food reward after hearing the examiner drop kibble into one of them.
c) Odor: Puppies chose which of two rubber tubes contained a food reward after sniffing two similar tubes. The ends of the tubes were stuffed with cotton to prevent the kibble from being visible or moving around to create a sound.

Tested puppies performed better than expected by chance in each of these tasks. Visual discrimination was the most successful, followed by olfactory, then auditory.
 Surprising events This task evaluated a puppy’s reaction to a series of unexpected and potentially startling events: a large trash bag stuffed with shredded paper was tossed in front of the puppy, an umbrella was opened toward the puppy, and a piece of sheet metal was shaken (making sound and pulses of air) near the puppy. Similar to the novel object task, individual responses and recovery rates varied.

1.       MacLean EL and Hare BA. (2018) Enhanced Selection of Assistance and Explosive Detection Dogs Using Cognitive Measures. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 5:236.

2.       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. 

Help Future Generations of Dogs

Participate in canine health research by providing samples or by enrolling in a clinical trial. Samples are needed from healthy dogs and dogs affected by specific diseases.

Learn How to Help

Get Canine Health News:
Please leave this field empty
American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, Inc

8051 Arco Corporate Dr.
Suite 300
Raleigh, NC 27617

Tax ID# 13-3813813


© 2021 AKC Canine Health Foundation | Privacy Policy | Site Map

Site by Blackbaud, Inc.