The study, published in Animal Cognition, identified six key markers of executive function in dogs, many of which overlap with the structures associated with human cognition – including the ability to follow instructions, control physical impulses and utilise working memory.
Lead researcher and PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Maike Foraita, said despite expressing it in different ways, dogs regulate their behaviour in a similar way to young children.
“A pet dog learns to control its impulses much like a child does; it inhibits its urge to chew the furniture or bark at visitors, it can remember routines and do what its owner says,” Ms Foraita said.
“Humans do this too – we exhibit delay inhibition and motor inhibition when we wait to be handed a piece of cake rather than grabbing the whole cake with our hands.”
Ms Foraita said dogs are likely to have developed these human-like cognitive structures over tens of thousands of years living in domestic settings.
“Living with humans over the last 30,000 years, dogs have depended on behaviour regulation suited to the human environment for their own survival,” Ms Foraita said.
“A dog that lashed out at its owners or stole food from their plates would not have been welcome, so, over time, they’ve developed cognitive functions that mirror that of humans to shore up their food and care.”
Co-author, Dr Tiffani Howell at La Trobe University, said the study highlights one of the reasons dogs have such a special relationship with humans.
“There are other animals that have similar levels of cognition to dogs, but they do not regulate their behaviour in ways that best suit living with humans,” Dr Howell said.
As part of the study, focus groups were held with people who work with dogs professionally, including staff from Seeing Eye Dogs – Vision Australia, to identify behaviours that might be relevant to executive function. The research team then surveyed 741 dog owners, asking them to rate their dogs on these behaviours. The result was the Dog Executive Function Scale (DEFS), which found six components of executive functioning in dogs: behavioural flexibility, attention towards owner, motor inhibition, instruction following, delay inhibition and working memory.
Ms Foraita said working dogs, including those on farms and assistance dogs, have the most highly developed executive function.
“Seeing Eye Dogs, for example, have to be excellent at regulating their behaviour – their ability to follow instruction and inhibit urges to chase cats or play with other dogs while they’re working shows highly developed executive function,” Ms Foraita said.
The study also found that dogs from breeders had higher levels of executive function than those from shelters, and that training is the key factor in the development of executive function – meaning that with the right interventions most dogs will be able to exhibit these important markers of behaviour regulation.
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