Are larger dogs smarter than smaller dogs? In some ways, say scientists

According to the results from a new scientific study, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, but in other areas of intelligence there is no difference…

More specifically, the study demonstrated that bigger dogs, with larger brains, perform better on certain measures of intelligence than their smaller canine counterparts.


Larger-brained dogs outperform smaller dogs on measures of executive functions — a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling and coordinating other cognitive abilities and behaviors. In particular, bigger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than more petite pups, according to the study published in the journal Animal Cognition.


Canine brain size does not seem to be associated with all types of intelligence, however. Researchers found that brain size did not predict a dog’s performance on tests of social intelligence, which was measured by testing each dog’s ability to follow human pointing gestures. It also was not associated with a dog’s inferential and physical reasoning ability.

The study’s findings mirror what scientists have previously found to be true in primates — that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.


Overview of study

The study was based on data from more than 7,000 purebred domestic dogs from 74 different breeds. Brain size was estimated based on breed standards.



The data came from the citizen science website, which offers instructions for dog owners to test their canines’ cognitive abilities through a variety of game-based activities. The users then submit their data to the site, where it can be accessed by researchers.

Short-term memory was tested by dog owners hiding a treat, in view of their dog, under one of two overturned plastic cups. Owners then waited 60, 90, 120 or 150 seconds before releasing their dog to get the treat. Smaller dogs had more difficulty remembering where the treat was hidden.

To test self-control, owners placed a treat in front of their seated dog and then forbade the dog from taking it. Owners then either watched the dog, covered their own eyes or turned away from the dog. Larger-breed dogs typically waited longer to snag the forbidden treat.

Researchers controlled for whether or not the dogs had been trained. They found that larger-brained breeds had better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs, regardless of the extent of training the dogs had received.



Journal reference: Daniel J. Horschler, Brian Hare, Josep Call, Juliane Kaminski, Ádám Miklósi, Evan L. MacLean. Absolute brain size predicts dog breed differences in executive function. Animal Cognition, 2019; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-018-01234-1



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