AMHERST, N.Y. — There’s a list of tricks we typically teach our dogs, such as sit, stay, roll over and shake. But what if someone told you your dog can do more than that? That they can even come up with a trick or two themselves? A recent study from University at Buffalo found that is possible. 

What You Need To Know

  • UB study finds dogs can be trained to repeat specific actions on cue, and then take what they’ve learned and apply it to actions they haven’t done before

  • There is evidence that dogs are capable of abstract conceptualization

  • Dr. Allison Scagel used her dog, Todd, and two acquaintances’ dogs for the two-year study 

  • Scagel says this could lead to more advanced training for service dogs  

“He does this little salute, he puts his paw up to his head,” Dr. Allison Scagel, a now former UB graduate student in the Department of Psychology, and corresponding author of the study said.  

That is Todd, saluting. The voice you’re hearing is Dr. Allison Scagel’s. She just wrapped up graduate school at UB’s Department of Psychology. The 29-year-old can add published researcher to her resume as well.

Todd has stage fright, so he stayed home for our interview. Scagel however is no stranger to the theatre, and now she’s center stage to discuss the findings of her research.

“There is evidence that dogs are capable of this abstract conceptualization, which we thought was uniquely a human ability,” Scagel explained.

It was thought you needed language to label concepts, but through Scagel’s research, that’s turned out to not be the case. Basically, dogs can be trained to repeat specific actions on cue and then take what they’ve learned and apply it to actions they haven’t done before.

“You don’t have to teach like simple tricks, like sit or down, or come, dogs are capable of doing these really complex tasks,” Scagel said.

For example, the salute Todd does. The long-haired Chihuahua actually thought of it himself.

“We asked the dog to create,” Scagel said.

From there, Todd did a series of movements.

“I saw him like lifting his foot, and I decided to focus on that one, and eventually we got it up to his head,” Scagel smiled.

Her research was sparked by her advisor’s successful 1990’s study with dolphins looking at the same thing. But being a dog lover and owner, Scagel wanted to pick their brains. She had the help of her advisor’s dog, as well as that of her old band director, for the study.

“For a test session, we would have a number of those trials, where we would either ask them to do random behaviors or ask them to do a behavior and repeat it,” Scagel explained.

Ultimately, they're trying to figure out whether the dog learned or are they looking to the trainer for guidance. Training took months and was set back by COVID-19. The two-year effort though was so worth the wait. Scagel says not only is it a game changer for pet owners, but it could lead to further research regarding dogs’ working memory span. It’s something they dabbled in.

Plus, Scagel says knowing a dog's cognitive ability will certainly expand how service dogs can be trained.

“They could be trained to do different things that depend on the context of what they’ve done before,” Scagel explained.

As for pet owners, here’s some advice.

“It’s important to teach then to generalize what you are trying to train them,” Scagel said.

For the results overall, Scagel says she wasn’t surprised when Todd proved our fur babies might know a thing or two more than we give them credit for.

“I was definitely very happy to see that he could do it,” Scagel smiled.

You can find the fully published report in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.