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Dogs head to maths class

  • Counting dogs

An intriguing study to see if dogs can be taught to count is underway at Unitec’s School of Environmental and Animal Sciences.

Led by Senior Lecturer Dr Kristie Cameron, the researchers are investigating if dogs can be taught to count by understanding the differences in quantities. The project was started by BASCI graduate Sophie Nannestad in 2021, and will be continued by another graduate Kayla Briden in 2022 after the project won a contestable Early Career Research grant.

If dogs can learn to understand numbers, it could be useful for working dogs, such as those used in search and rescue or guide dogs, says Kristie.

“For example, imagine if search dogs could understand they need to recover more than one item or person?”

The work builds on earlier research undertaken at Waikato University in 2009, says Kristie.

“That study found that found that dogs tended to choose the larger amount if presented with two options. For example, if the comparison was one dot versus five dots, the dogs responded by choosing the larger amount for a food reward almost every time. But when confronted by closer values such as four to five, the dogs did not perform very well – only getting about 50% correct.”

However, in this study they hope to rule out confounding factors like dogs going towards the stronger smell of the larger quantity, whether it is about coverage on the plate, rather than the number of item, and using more simplistic equipment, says Kristie.

The team hopes to train the dogs to respond to a particular value when faced with a choice of two values.

"It's a bit like how we teach kids – they already have numerical competence – we just need to teach what each number value means, such as three dots is equal to ‘3’."