Gender Divide in the Canine World

New research has revealed that when it comes to doggie intelligence, female dogs may have it all over their male counterparts.

Corsin Muller is a Cognitive biologist who works at the University of Vienna. In a recent study, her team compared male and female dogs, to see if they understood a concept, called ‘object permanence’. Basically, this is the understanding that things don’t just change or disappear just because they disappear out of sight. Apparently, children learn this concept around the time of their first birthday, however Muller posed the question of whether this level of understanding translated to dogs.

But how do you test something like this? Interestingly enough, tennis balls are involved, which I’m sure uncontrollably excited all of the research subjects. The team set up a system of blue tennis balls and a wooden board. Four scenarios were set up, and 50 eager participants (25 male, and 25 female dogs) watched each scenario play out. These were as follows:

1. A small ball disappeared and re-emerged
2. A large ball disappeared and re-emerged
3. A small ball disappeared and a large ball re-emerged
4. A large ball disappeared and a small ball re-emerged

In the first two scenarios, the ‘expected’ conditions were set up. These followed the laws of nature, where it is assumed if a certain object disappears, the same object will return and will be the exact same size and shape as when it left.

In the second two scenarios, the laws of nature were broken. The ball appeared to shrink or grow while out of sight, a seemingly ‘impossible’ fact.

What the researchers were looking for, is for the animals to react differently to the final 2 scenarios. In other words, stare at the ‘unexpected’ or ‘impossible’ for longer than situations which played out as expected. This is similar to how you assess and understand infant cognition.

So, what were the results? Initially, it seemed there was no difference between the length of time dogs stared at any of the 4 scenarios. However, when the results were split up according to gender, male dogs didn’t notice any difference at all, whilst female dogs stared at the ‘unexpected’ scenarios almost three times as long as the ‘expected’ conditions.

So, what does this mean? Is it just the age old fact that men don’t notice the finer details in life. Is this the same for male dogs?
The researchers have proposed three theories for why this is the case:

1. Evolutionary Pressure – In the past, just like with animals now, one hunts (often male) and one nests (often female). Therefore, females tend to develop better spatial reasoning, whilst males tend to become better at navigating through unfamiliar territory. Maybe this explains why men are better at reading maps…?

2. Child-bearing duties – Female animals often and certainly used to bear sole responsibility for nurturing children once born. This may have, over time, influenced brain differences between male and female dogs.

However, the third scenario appears to be the most likely, that sex specific hormones working on the brain explain the differences seen in cognitive function.

So, it seems in the canine world, women have the edge. Apologies to all male dogs pawing their way through this article, but unfortunately you can’t argue with science.

Dr Ben Willcocks is a Veterinarian, and a regular contributor to the pet website, www.vetico.com.au.

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