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Behaviour and beyond: three ways to examine dog cognitive processing.

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posted on 18.05.2017, 04:16 by Howell, Tiffani Josey
Dog cognition research relies heavily on behavioural approaches in order to determine the nature and extent of dog cognitive abilities. These behavioural data have greatly advanced current understanding of dog cognitive abilities. While there has been much research exploring how dogs respond in paradigms which require cooperation or communication with humans, fewer studies have explored their capabilities in non-social cognitive domains. More research of this kind would provide a more comprehensive account of dog cognitive abilities and limitations. Moreover, the use of non-behavioural methodologies may offer additional insights. Towards this end, surveys that explore community beliefs about dog cognition may be informative because dog owners spend time with dogs in non-experimental settings, giving them a different perspective on dog behaviour than what is observable in a scientific experiment. Neurophysiological techniques that index automatic, involuntary responses to stimuli also offer substantial opportunity to evaluate dog cognitive abilities, without the potentially confounding effects of training or motivation. The aim in this thesis was to advance understanding of dog cognitive abilities through the use of a variety of techniques, which each offer a different perspective on the general question of dog cognition. A survey was developed to determine community perceptions of dog cognition to redress the scarcity in research of this kind in recent decades. Behavioural studies to examine how dogs respond to mirrors were undertaken to further scientific understanding of dog problem-solving abilities. A method for measuring cognitive processing in dogs at the neural level was developed, using electroencephalography (EEG), which may complement behavioural data. The survey data collected in this thesis illustrate the extent to which scientifically established understanding of dog cognition has infiltrated the community. The findings revealed that community beliefs regarding some cognitive domains, such as comprehension of human communicative gestures, were well aligned with current scientific evidence. Additionally, respondents believed that dogs possess cognitive capabilities in other less-researched domains, such as empathy and deception; these findings offer researchers opportunities for new study areas. The behavioural research is the first to show that, under certain conditions, dogs are capable of using a mirror as a problem-solving tool. This is a unique finding and is significant in that it reveals a capacity in dogs that has been well established in other animals. However, the findings were sensitive to the experimental design and revealed the need for further research in this area. Data arising from the studies that employed neurophysiological techniques were the first to demonstrate the utility of these methods to advance understanding of cognitive processing in dogs in ways that are minimally invasive. This technique is suitable for discrimination tasks, which could complement behavioural studies to determine how well dogs discriminate items in auditory, visual, and olfactory modalities. Collectively, this series of studies offers new insights into dog cognitive abilities. The studies also identify new avenues of research and suggest practical applications for their use in the future.


Principal supervisor

Pauleen Charmayne Bennett

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Psychology and Psychiatry

Campus location



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences