Nav: Home

Do bigger brains equal smarter dogs? New study offers answers

January 28, 2019

Bigger dogs, with larger brains, perform better on certain measures of intelligence than their smaller canine counterparts, according to a new study led by the University of Arizona.

Larger-brained dogs outperform smaller dogs on measures of executive functions - a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. In particular, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups, according to the study published in the journal Animal Cognition.

"The jury is out on why, necessarily, brain size might relate to cognition," said lead study author Daniel Horschler, a UA anthropology doctoral student and member of the UA's Arizona Canine Cognition Center. "We think of it as probably a proxy for something else going on, whether it's the number of neurons that matters or differences in connectivity between neurons. Nobody's really sure yet, but we're interested in figuring out what those deeper things are."

Canine brain size does not seem to be associated with all types of intelligence, however. Horschler found that brain size didn't predict a dog's performance on tests of social intelligence, which was measured by testing each dog's ability to follow human pointing gestures. It also wasn't associated with a dog's inferential and physical reasoning ability.

The study's findings mirror what scientists have previously found to be true in primates - that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.

"Previous studies have been composed mostly or entirely of primates, so we weren't sure whether the result was an artifact of unique aspects of primate brain evolution," Horschler said. "We think dogs are a really great test case for this because there's huge variation in brain size, to a degree you don't see in pretty much any other terrestrial mammals. You have chihuahuas versus Great Danes and everything in between."

Horschler's study is based on data from more than 7,000 purebred domestic dogs from 74 different breeds. Brain size was estimated based on breed standards.

The data came from the citizen science website Dognition.com, which offers instructions for dog owners to test their canines' cognitive abilities through a variety of game-based activities. The users then submit their data to the site, where it can be accessed by researchers.

Short-term memory was tested by dog owners hiding a treat, in view of their dog, under one of two overturned plastic cups. Owners then waited 60, 90, 120 or 150 seconds before releasing their dog to get the treat. Smaller dogs had more difficulty remembering where the treat was hidden.

To test self-control, owners placed a treat in front of their seated dog and then forbade the dog from taking it. Owners then either watched the dog, covered their own eyes or turned away from the dog. Larger-breed dogs typically waited longer to snag the forbidden treat.

Horschler and his colleagues controlled for whether or not the dogs had been trained. They found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.

In the future, Horschler said he'd like to do comparative studies of cognitive abilities in different breed varieties, such as the miniature poodle and much larger standard poodle, which are essentially the same except for their size.

"I'm really interested in how cognition evolves and how that arises biologically," Horschler said. "We're coming to understand that brain size is in some way related to cognition, whether it's because of brain size specifically or whether it's a proxy for something else."
-end-


University of Arizona

Related Dogs Articles:

Sensitivity to inequity is in wolves' and dogs' blood
Not only dogs but also wolves react to inequity -- similar to humans or primates.
Pet dogs could help older owners be more active
Owning a dog may help older adults to meet physical activity levels recommended by the World Health Organisation, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.
Dogs help in breast carcinoma research
Cancer of the mammary glands in dogs is very similar to human breast carcinoma.
Breathtaking gene discovery in Dalmatian dogs
University of Helsinki researchers have uncovered a novel gene associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome in dogs.
Dogs, toddlers show similarities in social intelligence
University of Arizona researcher Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, found that dogs and 2-year-old children show similar patterns in social intelligence, much more so than human children and one of their closest relatives: chimpanzees.
Using dogs to find cats
Investigators are using specially-trained detection dogs to determine the numbers and distribution of cheetah in a region of Western Zambia.
Significant epilepsy gene discovery in dogs
Researh groups from the University of Helsinki, the LMU Munich and the University of Guelph have described in collaboration a novel myoclonic epilepsy in dogs and identified its genetic cause.
Empathetic people experience dogs' expressions more strongly
A study by the University of Helsinki and Aalto University explored how empathy and other psychological factors affect people's assessments of the facial images of dogs and humans.
Dogs share food with other dogs even in complex situations
Dogs also share their food, albeit mainly with four-legged friends rather than strangers.
C-P.A.W.W. to study health effects that walking shelter dogs has on veterans and dogs
Veterans will walk shelter dogs in an intervention aimed at reducing stress levels and improving psychological outcomes.

Related Dogs Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Digital Manipulation
Technology has reshaped our lives in amazing ways. But at what cost? This hour, TED speakers reveal how what we see, read, believe — even how we vote — can be manipulated by the technology we use. Guests include journalist Carole Cadwalladr, consumer advocate Finn Myrstad, writer and marketing professor Scott Galloway, behavioral designer Nir Eyal, and computer graphics researcher Doug Roble.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#529 Do You Really Want to Find Out Who's Your Daddy?
At least some of you by now have probably spit into a tube and mailed it off to find out who your closest relatives are, where you might be from, and what terrible diseases might await you. But what exactly did you find out? And what did you give away? In this live panel at Awesome Con we bring in science writer Tina Saey to talk about all her DNA testing, and bioethicist Debra Mathews, to determine whether Tina should have done it at all. Related links: What FamilyTreeDNA sharing genetic data with police means for you Crime solvers embraced...