If you’re having trouble sorting through all those family photos, maybe you should ask your dog to help. It turns out that dogs recognize and categorize complex images – just like we do! It seems our furry friends are able to form abstract concepts, an ability previously only identified in birds and primates.
In a pioneering study at the University of Vienna, Friederike Range and his colleagues demonstrated that dogs can place photographs into categories. “We know they can categorize ‘food’ or ‘enemies’ from experience,” says Range, “but this is the first time we’ve taught them an abstract concept – ‘a dog’ – and shown they can transfer this knowledge to a new situation.”
In the training phase, four dogs were simultaneously shown photographs of a landscape and of a dog, and were rewarded with food pellets if they selected the latter using a paw-operated computer touch-screen. The dog photos thus became the positive stimulus.
The next phase involved two tests. During the first test, the dogs were shown completely different dog and landscape pictures. They continued to identify the pictures containing dogs, demonstrating that they could transfer their knowledge gained in the training phase to a new set of visual stimuli, even though they had never seen those particular photos before.
In the second test, the dogs were shown new dog pictures pasted onto the landscape photos they had seen in the training phase. Faced with contradictory information – on the one paw, a positive new stimulus as the pictures showed a dog, albeit an unfamiliar one, on the other paw, a familiar negative stimulus in the form of a landscape. Faced with the choice of a new dog on the familiar landscape or a completely new landscape with no dog, they continued to select the photo with the dog.
What this tells us, says Range, is that the dogs were able to form a concept, i.e. dog, but leaves open the question of whether they understood the pictures to be of actual dogs. He and his fellow researchers also used the study to comment on the strength of their methodology. “Using touch-screen computers with dogs opens up a whole world of possibilities on how to test the cognitive abilities of dogs by basically completely controlling any influence from the owner or experimenter.” They believe that the methodology can be used to test a range of learning strategies, and could potentially allow researchers to compare the cognitive abilities of different species using a single method.
What kind of influence does Range expect the study to have? “We are starting to see that dogs have some good reasoning abilities,” says Range. “I hope this might impact how we treat them at home.”