Canine Intelligence

Project leader: Rosalind Arden

Probing relationships among cognitive and health traits in an animal model

I plan to explore ways in which hypotheses concerning relationships amongcognitive and health traits in an animal model - the dog - could be specified andtested.

My interest in this general approach stems from a particular interest in testing theusefulness of developing the dog as a model animal for dementia. Dogs acquire a form of dementia similar to ours in biologically relevant ways. I want to find out whether this convergence offers an opportunity to learn more about the pathophysiology of the disease, to the advantage of both species. Such work has the added benefit that it would be minimally invasive.

Our research paper on dog intelligence is freely available

Our research with sheepdogs was done at Kinloch Sheepdogs, which is run by Dr Angie Driscoll who is in the Welsh National Trials team.

She and Mrs Paula Handoll are experts with dogs. Angie and Paula can "talk dog". Angie's work with sheepdogs is electrifying to watch. Watching an expert working sheep with a dog in training is a revelation. It's good for the spirit to watch animals out perform us humans! Humbling in a good way.


Dogs and dementia

Dementia is an avalanche up the hill that threatens to bury the next generation; this is a consequence of the global shift in the ratio of young to old people. We are living longer, and older age is the largest cause of dementia. The personal and economic costs of this disease are immense. At present we cannot identify those at greater risk, have no treatments, and limited knowledge about its causes. We need novel approaches. I propose an ambitious programme of research that will deliver a full natural animal model of dementia.

In humans the two predictors of later dementia are the ε allele of APoE gene and, independently, lower pre-morbid cognitive ability. It is unknown whether this latter relation is causal; further it is harder to test in people owing to confounding arising from variation in education, income, and lifestyle.

Dogs provide an ideal model to test this hypothesis; I will test whether early poor cognition is causally associated with dementia, for partly genetic reasons. Dogs are ideal for this research and they are free from key epidemiological confounders such as drugs, alcohol and smoking. If early cognition increases risk of dementia in dogs, this project will deliver new endpoints relevant to AD (cognitive scores) for pre-clinical studies of interventions including drug therapies.”

Animal models are crucial in understanding the pathophysiology of complex diseases. The go-to model for dementia is the rodent. Rodents do not acquire dementia; dogs do. Dogs naturally reproduce key aspects of human behavioural and neuropathological ageing as well as dementia processes. In dogs, Aβ, tau and tangles are deposited. The canine form of Aβ is identical to ours (unlike the rodent form) as are dogs' APP processing mechanisms. Scores from published dementia questionnaires administered to owners of old dogs correlate (significantly) and positively with dogs' brain pathology at necropsy. Dogs share greater genetic homology with us than do rodents. Dogs' drug sensitivity and tolerance are similar to ours. Dogs' behavioural changes following cognitive decline are also like ours. They include alterations to, the sleep-wake cycle, appetite and interest in social interaction. Researchers have noted this relevant similarity and published findings concerning canine models of ageing and dementia.

The heavy brake on existing work on canine models of Alzheimer's is that it can take up to 40 days training per dog (to a cognitive criterion), prior to assessment. In addition, it is costly to buy, raise and house dogs in the laboratory. Convenience samples of pets consist of several breeds; this adds noise to the experimental design.

My previous work has shown that I can test a dog's cognitive performance in one hour. I established an association with the Sheep Dog Society (ISDS). This unique resource enabled me to acquire, for this project, the ages and postcodes of 34,000 dogs in the UK (all the same breed) and map them on the UK. This obviates the need to buy, or house, any dog. By bringing my expertise in individual differences in intelligence into my work with dogs, I can use genomics to assess the association of early canine cognition and dementia within a 5-year study. This will amplify greatly the usefulness of the canine model of ageing and dementia. The most invasive procedure in this project will be a cheek swab.

Specific research objectives:

1. Refine our existing canine cognitive test battery.

2. Administer the test battery to 900 young dogs (<4 years).

3. Administer a published dementia questionnaire to owners of 900 old dogs (>8 years)

4. Administer the test battery to a subset of old dogs for validation and power enhancement.

5. Genotype all 1800 dogs.

6. Test the association between cognition in young dogs and dementia scores in older dogsusing whole genome SNP data in mixed linear models to estimate the genetic correlationbetween these traits. The sample N arose from our power analyses.

Hypotheses: Cognitive ability, and dementia scores in dogs will be reliably measured, and heritable. There will be a significant negative genetic correlation between these two traits.

The study will create a robust basis for testing whether cognitive performance measured early in life is associated with successful ageing. It will lay the ground for a later longitudinal study, founding a canine brain biobank in collaboration with Brains for Dementia Research, and rich lifetime phenotyping.

Tests to do with your dog

Rule number one: have fun with your dog, don't worry about whether s/he does well or poorly. You love your pooch for more important reasons!

Can your dog find her way around a barrier to get at a food treat?

While your dog is not watching, assemble some kind of see-through barrier. Put a plate with a small, healthy food treat on it behind the barrier.

Bring your dog, on a leash, to the front of the barrier – the dog should be able to see the food treat, but around a couple of metres from the barrier.

Time how long it takes your dog, from being released from the leash, to get to the food treat.

This is a test that you can adapt to form different kinds of barriers. Try making a kind of maze with safe household obstacles.

On Countryfile, we experimented with hay bales. It was good fun to see that even smart Peg, was foxed by some configurations of the hay bales. She could see the food, but she didn't always figure out how to get at it.

Can your dog discriminate between bigger and smaller quantities?

Before your dog has been fed for the day try this. First prepare a few paper plates with food. Put more on some, less on the others.

Have the dog a couple of metres in front of you. Attract your dog's attention, show the two plates to your dog, then set them on the floor and let your dog come to eat from one of them. As soon as the dog has chosen a plate, pick up the other one so the dog learns she will not get a second plateful. Then repeat the test. Record how many times out of 5 trials (no counting the first one), your dog chooses the plate with more food.

When your dog is not looking, put two plastic cups or bowls upside down on the floor. Put a single treat under each one.

Have your dog sitting around 2 metres in front of you and the bowls to the and right just in front ofyou. Look neutrally straight ahead. Point to one cup/bowl with your whole arm. As you point, have the dog released from the "sit" – you might need a friend to help you with this. Do this a few times. Change the pointed cup/bowl so there isn't an obvious pattern. Record how many times your dog goes to the pointed side.


In general terms, dogs who figure out more quickly how to get round a barrier more quickly, are brighter than those who see the treat but don't catch-on that they have to find a way round the obstacle.

Dogs who choose "more" over "less" more frequently are making the smarter choice (unless they areon a diet!).

Dogs who connect your point with the abstract idea that you have an intention about which is the correct cup are reasoning well.

Depending on your dog's appetite and attention span, you should keep the testing session fairly short. Just as it's good for us to have interests, it seems to be good for dogs too. Making up cognitively stimulating games is a good way to have fun with your dogs and keep them learning. 

You'll see that I'm saying "dogs who", not "dogs that". Well, that's because animal expert Marc Bekoff wrote a super article about our work in Psychology Today. He chided us on that point, soI'm listening to him!

Books on dogs

  • What is a Dog?  By Raymond and Lorna Coppinger  

    Dogs' evolution and behaviour by celebrated experts.

  • Intelligence in Dogs by Stanley Coren  

    Stanley Coren is a well known expert on dogs. His book provides fun tests you can do with your dog. The author assesses which breeds he thinks come top in dog smarts.

  • The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods  

    Lots of what we know about dog behaviour described in a conversational style.

Intelligence in other animals


Links to some articles in the popular press about our dog work: