Can Dogs Count?

I always wondered whether some animals can count. I came to a very unscientific conclusion that mine can.

Basil Houndini

About 14 years ago, my first foster and my first foster failure, Basil Houndini came to live with us.  (I don’t know why the rescue world calls a foster who becomes adopted by the foster family as foster failure. To my mind, that’s a classic case of adoption success.) We called him Basil, because he was our fourth spice; and we called him Houndini, because he was an escape artist. Basil, besides having a tendency of wanting to roam (no he was not intact—he came to us neutered), he also had a tremendous sense of humor. Some we shared and overlooked; others annoyed the crap out of us.

His most annoying idea of fun was his tendency of disobeying and running the other way when it was time to retire. We have a rule that every dog in our household (fosters, babysittees, and permanent residents) understood: bedtime meant that everybody goes up the “mommy’s” and “daddy’s” room to sleep. Everyone had their own bed and everyone would retire to it as soon as they heard “bedtime, time to sleep.” However, as soon as we would say “bedtime,” Basil would run down to the basement, to another room, or wherever struck his fancy. He would stand there waiting for us to try to catch him and then run away as soon as we got too close. It was a nightmare. So, we devised a method of outsmarting him. I would carry a spoonful of peanut butter and have him follow me. Eventually (5 years later, LOL), he would come up without the peanut butter. By then, we had treats in the bedroom to give out to everyone just before it was time to retire.

I loved Basil. I still do. He died on April 27, 2010 of renal failure. There never was a dog who so struck my family’s heart string.

Anyway, I digress. When Basil died, a few months later, we opened our hearts to two additional, bonded seniors. Dudley, who was then 6 and Bailey who was 10 years old. They soon learned of the treat routine. At some point, though, our treats went from one to three for each dog. It didn’t dawn on me that they knew how to count till one day I forgot to give out the third treat.

I found myself being stared at intently by four dogs, who after having eye contact with me, would look up to the place I keep the treats and then look back down at me. Obviously, they were saying you missed one. A few nights later, I purposely left out one of the treats. Once again, I received the same treatment: staring at me, then to the place the treats were being kept, and back down to me. I started mixing up the types of treats, thinking that they were really missing the flavor of the last, and, thus, giving their signal that I missed giving that one out. Didn’t matter which treat I’d left out, I’d get the “treatment.” Interestingly, they never gave me the “treatment” after all three treats were given out. They would quietly retire to their beds.


So what do you think? Do they know how to count or not?

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  1. They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

  2. Oh, yes, I’ve seen the deception routine with mine. One dog signals that she wants to out. The other, who doesn’t want to miss out on the action, drops the chew bone she was chewing and runs to the door. She always wants to be first. The original dog who signaled to go out, let’s dog #2 out and not only she doesn’t go out, but she takes the chew bone and starts chewing it herself.

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