dog science

Your Dog May Be Better at Math Than You Are

Maybe not at actual equations, but still. Photo: Getty Images

Dogs, as you know, are very smart. They have evolved into master manipulators of the human psyche, adept at waggling their eyebrows juuuuust so in order to pry treats from your hand and devotion from your heart. They read your emotions and internalize your personality in order to become more like you over time because they love you and, again, desire little snacks. And according to a new study, they can also do math — on the basic level of a baby or a primate, but still. That’s more than some of us can say about ourselves.

Conducted by researchers at Emory University and recently published in Biology Letters, the study looked at brain scans of 11 unrestrained, awake dogs of various breeds — I mean medium dogs! Big dogs! Golden boys and Collie girls! — and ages. The team wanted to gauge the canine capacity for rapid numerical estimation, or whether dogs can quickly glean rough quantities when presented with items in a group. Other animals, humans included, use the approximate number system (ANS) to intuit these sorts of ballpark figures, a skill that better equips us to forage for food and guess how many predators may be lurking nearby. But dogs? Who knows!

To find out whether pups possess this ability, the researchers hooked up their participants to functional MRI machines, then showed them various arrangements of dots. (Yes, this sounds very boring, but don’t worry: They were given treats.) As the dogs scrutinized the images, their parietotemporal cortexes activated, just as a human’s would. What’s more, eight of the dogs showed increased brain activity when the researchers manipulated the dot-dispersement ratios and spread the numbers farther apart. Apparently, this is a “key feature” of the ANS and supports the idea that dogs can do a little math as a means of survival. And that is very impressive because, frankly, I find myself disoriented by this study’s talk about ratios, and I have been formally trained in arithmetic. These dogs, meanwhile, have not.

Other studies have also suggested dogs can accomplish basic mathematical feats such as simple addition, subtraction, and counting — which, same, when pressed. But anyway, all you need to know is that your good boys and girls may be good at math, and you should be very proud.

Your Dog May Be Better at Math Than You Are