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Dogs provide insight into human cognition and aging

The pursuit of understanding human intelligence and deciphering the mind’s complexity has always been at the forefront of scientific inquiry. Remarkably, according to recent findings, the study of dogs can shed light on the roots and structure of human cognition and intellect

Research led by the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary has found that dogs may possess a crucial element of intelligence, known as the “g factor,” which closely mirrors its human equivalent, including how it changes with age. 

This discovery could bridge the gap in our understanding of cognitive organization and the progression of cognitive decline in both dogs and humans.

The g factor in human cognition 

Humans show a tendency to perform consistently across different cognitive tests; for example, those good at mathematics might also excel in literature. This suggests that human cognitive abilities are centralized yet hierarchical, culminating in the g factor at the hierarchy’s summit. 

The g factor is integral to intelligence, affecting all cognitive abilities and correlating with success in academic, workplace, and career achievements.

Cognitive structure in dogs 

The scientists embarked on a quest to explore whether dogs also exhibit a general cognitive factor. 

“The cognitive and socio-cognitive performance of dogs is a highly popular topic in scientific literature, yet most studies are comparative, focusing on how well dogs perform as a species,” said co-lead author Borbála Turcsán, an ethologist at ELTE.

“Surprisingly, these studies have largely overlooked the individual differences in specific skills and the reasons behind them. As a result, we know very little about how dogs’ cognitive abilities are structured.” 

Dog cognition resembles that of humans

To delve into this, the team designed a battery of seven cognitive tests for 129 family dogs, aged three to fifteen years, and monitored them over two and a half years. 

The analysis revealed a hierarchical structure of cognitive abilities in dogs, similar to human cognition, with two broad domains identified: independent problem-solving and learning ability. These domains were interlinked, suggesting the presence of a “canine g factor” that unifies them.

Scoring the g factor in dogs

Further investigation aimed at verifying the canine g factor’s predictive validity. “To confirm that we have indeed identified the general cognitive factor, we examined whether this factor correlates with individual characteristics known from the literature of humans and other animal species to be associated with the ‘g factor,'” said study co-author Tamás Faragó, a research fellow in comparative ethology at ELTE.

Dogs scoring higher on the g factor were more adventurous in new environments, more curious about novelties, and excelled in learning tasks compared to lower-scoring counterparts. 

Higher g factor scores 

Their g factor score also correlated with personality traits assessed through owner-completed questionnaires, linking higher g factor scores to higher activity levels, training levels, and trainability. 

These outcomes affirmed the canine g factor’s similarity to its human analogue in structure and external associations.

Pattern of aging in dogs

The study not only drew parallels between canine and human g factors but also ventured into aging research. 

“It is well-known that as dogs age, their attention, learning ability, and memory naturally decline. However, if cognitive abilities are interconnected, it’s plausible that their decline with age is not independent but rather linked to a common underlying factor behind the deterioration of various abilities,” explained co-lead author Zsófia Bognár, a PhD student at ELTE.

Longitudinal data showed a general cognitive decline in dogs as they aged, with health status affecting the rate of this decline. This pattern of aging is akin to that observed in humans, offering valuable insights for future research into cognitive decline’s molecular and neurological underpinnings.

Evolution of human intelligence 

“This new research highlights intriguing parallels between human and canine aging, further strengthening the argument that dogs serve as an excellent model species for aging research,” said senior author Enikő Kubinyi, leader of the MTA-ELTE Companion Animal Research Group and the Senior Family Dog Program.

“Moreover, our findings support the existence of the ‘canine g factor,’ suggesting that dogs can also help in understanding the evolution and background of human intelligence.” 

The study is published in the journal GeroScience.


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