Have you ever wondered if your dog can count? According to a new study conducted by Emory University and published in Biology Letters, dogs use a similar part of their brain to humans to process numbers of objects shown to them so your dog certainly can count.
Overall, the study discovered that although they don’t count numbers in the same way we do, dogs are acutely tuned in to numbers - specifically showing an interest in how much food or treats you give them, so they know when they've been given more or less than usual.
In 2015, Kirsty Forrester, who trained her Shih Tzu Cooper to count shared five fun steps with us to help you teach your dog to channel his natural ability to count into a game you can both play. On the back of the new research on a dog's ability to understand numbers, it seems appropriate to re-share!
Cooper / Photo Credit: Kirsty Forrester
How to Teach a Dog to Count
First, here’s what you’ll need to prepare to teach your dog to count.
Three items that your dog can count. Try to find three items that look the same, like 3 tennis balls, 3 cotton reels, 3 treats, or 3 pieces of kibble. If your dog is food-motivated, you might find that they will focus better when counting food.
Three buttons or targets with the labels 1, 2, and 3. I used recordable sound buttons, but you can also use flashcards, a magnetic board with a number of magnets - anything that creates a target that your dog can hit to give their answer.
If you use rewards when training your dog, be sure to have plenty of them handy! I recommend a small treat that you can give in a large quantity. When I was teaching Cooper this trick, I used his dinner (dry kibble).
Your dog should be able to touch a target on command in response to you pointing at the target. Nose or paw, it doesn’t matter what they use to touch it.
If your dog is counting food, they need to be able to reliably leave the food alone. If they can’t do that, you should use a different item for them to count.
Ready? Let’s learn to count!
1. Start out with one item on display and one “button” on the floor.
Point at the button and say “one” out loud. When your dog hits the button, praise/reward them. Continue practising “one” until your dog learns that hitting the button means they’ll get a reward. If you use clicker training, you can use a clicker whenever your dog hits the right button.
2. Add a second item and the number 2 button, and then have your dog hit the number 2 button by pointing at it and saying “two.”
Practice this repeatedly. If your dog hits the number 1 button by mistake, ignore it and wait until they hit the correct one. If you find your dog keeps switching back and forth between the buttons, you might need to reset them after a wrong answer by having them sit or lie down.
Article continues below >>
3. Start changing how many items there are, from one to two and back and forth.
Do long sequences of one item, then long sequences of two items, and then mix it up. Your dog should notice that you are changing the items, and with enough repetition will hopefully make the connection between the items and the buttons.
4. At first, you should point at the button they need to press.
Later, just say the number one or two out loud. Finally, stop saying the number out loud, and let the dog try to press the correct button simply by looking at the number of objects.
5. Adding a third item and button can be done in the same way as the previous steps.
Begin by pointing at it and saying the number, then gradually reducing your direction to only the oral cue, then no cue.
To make the challenge harder and reduce the chances of your dog getting any cues or signals (or simply memorising the button locations), you can rearrange the buttons, change the placement and spacing of the items, or hide your hands while placing the items down.
How did your dog get on? Let us know by commenting below!