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Dogs can be prompted to repeat their recent actions

Scientists have long thought that conscious awareness of past personal experiences is the exclusive domain of humans. However, a recent study led by the University at Buffalo (UB) has now found that dogs are capable of learning the instruction “do that again,” and can flexibly access memories of their own recent actions, which are cognitive abilities they were not previously known to possess.

“We found that dogs could be trained to repeat specific actions on cue, and then take what they’d learned and apply it to actions they had never been asked to repeat,” said study lead author Allison Scagel, who conducted the study as a doctoral student in Psychology at UB. “Our findings showed that they were able to apply the concept of repetition to new situations. More generally, we found evidence that dogs are capable of forming abstract concepts […] placing them in an expanding category of other animals that includes bottlenose dolphins and chimpanzees.”

The researchers worked with three dogs – a male long-haired chihuahua and two female golden retrievers – to test whether they could voluntarily think back to what they had just been doing and repeat those actions. In a first step, the experimenters used traditional dog training based on cues and responses to teach the animals to follow simple cues such as spinning in a circle, lying down, or walking around an object. 

Then, they taught the dogs a separate repeat cue – the word “again” accompanied by a hand gesture – which instructed them to reproduce the action they had just completed. In order to asses whether the dogs have managed to actually learn a general concept of repeating recent actions, they were asked to repeat new actions that they had not been asked to repeat before. Despite never being asked to repeat such actions, all the dogs successfully passed the test.

“Dogs can do more than learn the relationship between a person’s cue and which specific trick they should perform,” said Dr. Scagel. “They can understand the concept of repetition: whatever you just did, do that again. It can apply to anything they do.”

“This is an important step toward a greater understanding of how other species form abstract concepts. And we’re learning that humans aren’t that cognitively unique after all,” she concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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