Cognitive characteristics of 8- to 10-week-old assistance dog puppies

Emily E. Bray, Margaret E. Gruen, Gitanjali E. Gnanadesikan, Daniel J. Horschler, Kerinne M. Levy, Brenda S. Kennedy, Brian A. Hare, Evan L. MacLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


To characterize the early ontogeny of dog cognition, we tested 168 domestic dog, Canis familiaris, puppies (97 females, 71 males; mean age = 9.2 weeks) in a novel test battery based on previous tasks developed and employed with adolescent and adult dogs. Our sample consisted of Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and Labrador × golden retriever crosses from 65 different litters at Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that breeds, trains and places assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Puppies participated in a 3-day cognitive battery that consisted of 14 tasks measuring different cognitive abilities and temperament traits such as executive function (e.g. inhibitory control, reversal learning, working memory), use of social cues, sensory discriminations and reactivity to and recovery from novel situations. At 8–10 weeks of age, and despite minimal experience with humans, puppies reliably used a variety of cooperative-communicative gestures from humans. Puppies accurately remembered the location of hidden food for delays of up to 20 s, and succeeded in a variety of visual, olfactory and auditory discrimination problems. They also showed some skill at executive function tasks requiring inhibitory control and reversal learning, although they scored lower on these tasks than is typical in adulthood. Taken together, our results confirm the early emergence of sensitivity to human communication in dogs and contextualize these skills within a broad array of other cognitive abilities measured at the same stage of ontogeny.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-206
Number of pages14
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • assistance dog
  • behaviour
  • canine
  • cognition
  • development
  • temperament

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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