Humans Took Away Dogs' Mathematical Abilities


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

292 Humans Took Away Dogs' Mathematical Abilities
Clever Dog Lab / Vetmeduni Vienna. The one on the left can count, the others probably can't

Wolves have a better understanding of numbers than dogs, suggesting that this was a capacity lost in domestication.

Team members tend to focus on what they do best, and over time can lose skills where their teammates exceed them. This appears to have happened with humans and dogs over the 19-32,000 years we have been collaborating. Canine cranial capacity has decreased, particularly in areas, such as alertness, in greater demand when humans aren't there to protect them. 


Meanwhile, we gave up things as well. Humans poor sense of smell may be a result of having had four legged sniffing machines accompanying us for so long

A paper in Frontiers in Psychology suggests mathematical ability is one of the things dogs didn't need once they were living in company with those who were better at it.

The finding is one of an impressive series made by Drs Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in their studies conducted on wolves raised from near birth by humans in a manner similar to dogs. Among their previous discoveries are that wolves are much more inclined to cooperate with each other than the more hierarchical dogs

In 2012 Range and Virányi tested the capacity of these wolves to compare amounts of food that had been placed in opaque containers. The test subjects could see 1cm3 pieces of Gouda cheese being placed in different containers, but since the containers were not transparent they had to count how many pieces were put in each one before choosing which they wanted. They demonstrated a capacity to reach the number four.


The latest paper repeats the same study with mixed-breed dogs, and finds they cannot replicate the wolves' success.

"We deliberately performed the test in such a way that the dogs never saw the full quantity of food at once. We showed them the pieces sequentially. This allows us to exclude the possibility that the dogs were basing their decisions on simple factors such as overall volume. The dogs had to mentally represent the number of pieces in a tube," Range says.

Range notes the dogs can “Discriminate the quantities of food when they can see them in their entirety,” but she adds that this “requires no mental representation.”

Cognitive scientists regard the test as requiring two skills: mental representation and the capacity to process numerical information. Range and Virányi hope to create tests that reveal which of these our best friends have lost.


Either way, it seems likely it is our fault. "Compared to wolves, domestic dogs no longer have to search for food on their own. They have a secure place to sleep and even mating decisions are made by people,” Range notes. In such a life some skills atrophy from lack of use, and sizing up the number of your opponents or which hole has the most rabbits, may be one of them.