Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris)
In most social interactions, an animal has to determine whether the other animal belongs to its own species. This perception may be visual and may involve several cognitive processes such as discrimination and categorization. Perceptual categorization is likely to be involved in species characterized by a great phenotypic diversity. As a consequence of intensive artificial selection, domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, present the largest phenotypic diversity among domestic mammals. The goal of our study was to determine whether dogs can discriminate any type of dog from other species and can group all dogs whatever their phenotypes within the same category. Nine pet dogs were successfully trained through instrumental conditioning using a clicker and food rewards to choose a rewarded image, S+, out of two images displayed on computer screens. The generalization step consisted in the presentation of a large sample of paired images of heads of dogs from different breeds and cross-breeds with those of other mammal species, included humans. A reversal phase followed the generalization step. Each of the nine subjects was able to group all the images of dogs within the same category. Thus, the dogs have the capacity of species discrimination despite their great phenotypic variability, based only on visual images of heads.