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How Does Your Dog Know That Another Dog Is A Dog?

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Julie Hecht over at Scientific American recently posed the most mind-boggling question: Does a dog know what other dogs are?

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Do you ever really sit down and think about how different dogs are from each other? I mean, when Chihuahuas and St. Bernards and Whippets and Bulldogs are all in a park together, are they thinking, “Hey what’s up, my dogs are here!” or are they thinking, “WHAT ALIEN REALM IS THIS??”

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We know that dogs use smell to recognize a peer. But for curiosity’s sake, is merely seeing a fellow dog enough for them to say, “Yep, that’s a dog.” Or do our fluffy pals think their different-looking peers might as well be pigs?

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Researchers in France must’ve been wrestling with this cosmic question too, because they went and published a study on the subject in Animal Cognition. They designed an experiment to find out if a dog could recognize an animal as a fellow dog strictly going by appearance, without having to smell to be sure.

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The first step was establishing a common language between the researcher and their test-subject dogs, so the researcher could say, “Hey dog, tell us which of these pictures is a dog,” and the dog responding, “Sure Doc, I got ya, no problem man.” The researchers recruited nine dogs for the experiment and got down to it.

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For this training phase, the researchers set up a choice of one dog picture (always the same picture of the same dog) juxtaposed with one non-dog picture. The dogs were invited to approach one picture or the other. They were rewarded with a treat only if they approached the picture of a dog.

In this manner, the researchers were able to communicate the dog, “We want you to recognize the dog.”

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The test dogs had to approach the pup image 10 out of 12 times in two consecutive sessions, to confirm they were doing better than guessing at random. And all nine dogs hit that target.

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In the next phase of the experiment, the researchers got to the heart of their question: could a dog tell when a dog was a dog, in all the infinite varieties of dogkind?

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This time, the test dogs were presented with a much more ambiguous pairing: one dog picture, varying between several different breeds of dog, and one non-dog picture, often picked to overlap with the dog picture in several visually tricky ways.

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The results? The dogs nailed it! Some dogs hit the “two consecutive trials of 10/12 accuracy” bar faster than others, but each of the dogs managed the accomplishment. So it looks like a dog can tell a dog by sight alone. Next time you take your dog out to meet some new dogs, don’t worry. They might think the other dogs are annoying, but they won’t ask themselves in a terror, “WHY IS THE CARPET SMILING AT ME??”

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It really makes you think. If dogs can see each other, as different as they are, doesn’t it kinda make you want to see your fellow man better, you know? Like, imagine a Great Dane and a Chihuahua, truly recognizing each other: “Hey, as different as we are, we both like butts, we both pee on the same trees, we both just want a bone to chew on and a human to snuggle.”

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Like a hole for a bone: I dig it.h/t Scientific American

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