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Dog cognitive development: a longitudinal study across the first 2 years of life

Abstract

While our understanding of adult dog cognition has grown considerably over the past 20 years, relatively little is known about the ontogeny of dog cognition. To assess the development and longitudinal stability of cognitive traits in dogs, we administered a battery of tasks to 160 candidate assistance dogs at 2 timepoints. The tasks were designed to measure diverse aspects of cognition, ranging from executive function (e.g., inhibitory control, reversal learning, memory) to sensory discrimination (e.g., vision, audition, olfaction) to social interaction with humans. Subjects first participated as 8–10-week-old puppies, and then were retested on the same tasks at ~ 21 months of age. With few exceptions, task performance improved with age, with the largest effects observed for measures of executive function and social gaze. Results also indicated that individual differences were both early emerging and enduring; for example, social attention to humans, use of human communicative signals, independent persistence at a problem, odor discrimination, and inhibitory control all exhibited moderate levels of rank-order stability between the two timepoints. Using multiple regression, we found that young adult performance on many cognitive tasks could be predicted from a set of cognitive measures collected in early development. Our findings contribute to knowledge about changes in dog cognition across early development as well as the origins and developmental stability of individual differences.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during and analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Ben Allen, Erika Albrecht, Kacie Bauer, Ashtyn Bernard, Amelia Byrony, James Brooks, Molly Byrne, Meg Callahan, Alexzia Clark, Victoria Coon, Elizabeth Carranza, Averill Cantwell, Mary Chiang, Amanda Chira, Allison Doty, Laura Douglas, Alex Evans, Erin Hardin, Victoria Holden, Emily Humphrey, Julia Kemper, Jennifer Geary, Kyla Guinon, Lindsey Lang, Jessica Nelson, Camden Olson, Facundo Ortega, Gianna Ossello, Alessandra Ostheimer, Amber Robello, Kerri Rodriguez, Camila Risueno-Pena, Ashley Ryan, Holland Smith, Paige Smith, Lily Tees, and Mia Wesselkamper for help with data collection and video coding. We thank the staff of Canine Companions for Independence and their dedicated volunteer breeder caretakers for accommodating 6 months of research with their assistance dog puppies at the Canine Early Development Center, and over a year of research with their assistance dogs in professional training at two of their regional campuses. This research was supported in part by grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR N00014-17-1-2380 and N00014-20-1-2545 to EM and ONR N00014-16-1-2682 to BH), the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (Grant No. 02518 to EB and EM), and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (Award No. R01HD097732 to BH). The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.

Funding

This research was supported in part by grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR N00014-17-1-2380 to EM and ONR N00014-16-1-2682 to BH), the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (Grant No. 02518 to EB and EM), and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (Award No. R01HD097732 to BH).

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Contributions

The study was designed by all authors. The analysis was primarily designed and conducted by EB and EM. The paper was written primarily by EB and EM with significant contributions and revisions from MG, GG, DH, BH, KL, and BK. All authors gave their final approval for publication and agree to be held accountable for the work performed therein.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emily E. Bray.

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval

All testing procedures were reviewed and adhered to regulations set forth by the University of Arizona Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC # 16-175) and were collected in accordance with relevant guidelines and regulations.

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Bray, E.E., Gruen, M.E., Gnanadesikan, G.E. et al. Dog cognitive development: a longitudinal study across the first 2 years of life. Anim Cogn 24, 311–328 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01443-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01443-7

Keywords

  • Assistance dog
  • Behavior
  • Cognition
  • Development
  • Longitudinal
  • Individual differences