Cognitive Characteristics of Young Assistance dog puppies

puppy crawling through tube

In 2017, Canine Companions teamed up with long-time collaborators at the University of Arizona and Duke University to begin tracking puppy cognitive development, starting at approximately nine weeks of age and continuing through adulthood, in a subset of our canine population.

Recently, we published our initial findings summarizing the cognitive abilities of young puppies in the journal Animal Behaviour. These results are based on a large sample of 168 Canine Companions puppies from 65 different litters, tested at approximately nine weeks of age. All puppies participated in a series of 14 games that were designed to measure both cognition and temperament. Throughout all behavioral games, puppies were rewarded with food, praise, or a combination of both. Testing took place over a series of three days at the Canine Early Development Center, prior to the puppies being sent to their volunteer puppy raisers.

The resulting data contributes to our understanding of the early development of canine cognition. As a group, puppies performed above chance expectations on tasks which evaluate abilities such as gesture following, memory, and perceptual discrimination. Even at such a young age, puppies could reliably follow a human pointing to find hidden food, remember the location of an out-of-sight kibble for up to 20 seconds, and discriminate between two options based solely on vision, hearing, or sense of smell.

Most past studies in young puppies have focused on temperament traits, such as reactivity to novel objects and surprising situations. While these characteristics were also assessed, this study by Canine Companions, University of Arizona and Duke University is unique in that it furthers our knowledge of puppy cognition in several previously unexplored areas – including paw preference, impulse control, memory and more.

Adult dogs are able to follow human social cues, such as pointing gestures. If young puppies that spend most of their time with littermates possess this skill, it would mean that this ability is present even before extensive interaction with humans. Our study, the largest sample size to date, shows that puppies do have this innate ability – puppies followed the pointing gesture 70% of the time, which is much higher than if they were just guessing. Additionally, there was a high degree of success on the very first trial. But aren’t they just using their nose? Not according to this study! Without the gestures, puppies only found the food 49.5% of the time – exactly what you’d expect if they were just guessing. Taken together, these findings suggest that, through the process of domestication, dogs are biologically prepared for communication with humans.

This investigation of puppy cognition is just the first step in a larger, longitudinal project. Stay tuned to hear about how these traits develop into adulthood, if individual differences stay stable over time, how much of the variation that we see in these skills can be attributed to genetics, and whether or not performance on these tasks is associated with outcomes in the Canine Companions program. We are hopeful that as we start to answer these questions, the takeaways from our research will help us to optimize the process of producing successful working partnerships, thereby continuing to move the needle forward for our mission and continuing to provide exceptional dogs for people with disabilities.

Learn more about research at Canine Companions by visiting cci.org/research.