Certainly humans have been engaging in a battle of the sexes of sorts for years, with both sides fully believing they have the superior intelligence. However, researchers have found that the brains of male and female dogs are more different from one another than previously assumed. According to the results of a recent study, in at least in one task females seem to have the edge.
Researchers working in the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna wanted to find out if dogs understand a concept known as “object permanence.” This concept can best be understood as the realization that an object does not disappear or change form simply because it goes out of sight. Human children learn this physical law usually by the time they are one year old and the researchers wanted to see if dogs understand it as well. They selected fifty family dogs for the study, 25 males and 25 females. The researchers showed each of the dogs one of four different scenarios involving tennis balls and a wooden board:
A small ball disappears behind the board and reemerges
A large ball disappears and then reemerges
A small disappears and large ball emerges
A large ball disappears and a small ball emerges
The first two events did not break any laws of nature, so they were the “expected” conditions. Since the second two scenarios are impossible because objects to not grow or shrink when out of sight, they were the “unexpected” conditions. Similar to experiments on infant cognition, the researchers then measured each dog’s ability to comprehend that something impossible had just occurred by measuring the length of time the dog stared at the emerging ball. Both children and animals will typically look for a longer amount of time if something unexpected or impossible happens.
Analyzing Study Results
When the researchers looked at the results based on the sex of the dog, they found that only the females had noticed something odd and the males did not seem to notice anything odd at all. The female dogs stared at the conditions that were “unexpected” for over 30 seconds on average, which was over three times longer than they looked at balls that had not changed size. The researchers found that this difference between males and females emerged across all breeds, whether purebred or mixed, and ranging in size from small to large.
There are a few possible explanations for the emergence of brain differences based on sex. The first argues that evolutionary pressures over thousands of years may have caused subtle shifts in male and female brains. For example, if one sex hunts while the other builds the nest, the hunter might become better at navigation, while the nest builder becomes better at spatial reasoning. Another possibility is that the responsibility for bearing and caring for offspring can lead to changes in the brain that equip the female for nurturing. Being aware of subtle changes from what is “normal” could serve a female well in this capacity. The researchers themselves are leaning toward a third explanation that argues that brain differences result from sex differences, and are nothing more than a by-product of sex hormones acting on the brain.
This research is interesting, but by no means exhaustive. Just as in research on human cognitive functioning, there is a strong possibility that male dogs will excel on some tests while females excel on others. Also, the researchers had no way to be sure if the male dogs did not notice the differences, or they noticed and just did not care about the change. While researchers are not certain of the root cause of these differences in male and female canine brains, they do point out that sex needs to be taken into account when trying to understand how different animals think.
About the author: Susan Wright DMV is a vet,, a wireless dog fence specialist and writer. Susan enjoys writing articles to share her knowledge to help dog owners learn to provide special care to rescued pets.
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