Estimating the heritability of cognitive traits across dog breeds reveals highly heritable inhibitory control and communication factors

Gitanjali E. Gnanadesikan, Brian Hare, Noah Snyder-Mackler, Evan L. MacLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Trait heritability is necessary for evolution by both natural and artificial selection, yet we know little about the heritability of cognitive traits. Domestic dogs are a valuable study system for questions regarding the evolution of phenotypic diversity due to their extraordinary intraspecific variation. While previous studies have investigated morphological and behavioral variation across dog breeds, few studies have systematically assessed breed differences in cognition. We integrated data from—a citizen science project on dog cognition—with breed-averaged genetic data from published sources to estimate the among-breed heritability of cognitive traits using mixed models. The resulting dataset included 11 cognitive measures for 1508 adult dogs across 36 breeds. A factor analysis yielded four factors interpreted as reflecting inhibitory control, communication, memory, and physical reasoning. Narrow-sense among-breed heritability estimates—reflecting the proportion of cognitive variance attributable to additive genetic variation—revealed that scores on the inhibitory control and communication factors were highly heritable (inhibitory control: h2 = 0.70; communication: h2 = 0.39), while memory and physical reasoning were less heritable (memory: h2 = 0.17; physical reasoning: h2 = 0.21). Although the heritability of inhibitory control is partially explained by body weight, controlling for breed-average weight still yields a high heritability estimate (h2 = 0.50), while other factors are minimally affected. Our results indicate that cognitive phenotypes in dogs covary with breed relatedness and suggest that cognitive traits have strong potential to undergo selection. The highest heritabilities were observed for inhibitory control and communication, both of which are hypothesized to have been altered by domestication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)953-964
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Breed differences
  • Canine cognition
  • Citizen science
  • Cognitive evolution
  • Domestication
  • Test battery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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