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Development and heritability of cognitive traits in Canine Companions dogs presented by Emily Bray

Given that most dogs who are released from working dog programs are unsuccessful for behavioral reasons, we have made it a research priority to understand how and why behavior develops. During the past five years, we have tested 415 Canine Companions puppies, as well as over 400 Canine Companions adults, on our Dog Cognitive Development Battery (DCDB). We find that by just 8.5 weeks of age, puppy cognition is highly developed. As a group, puppies can remember the location of hidden treats for up to 20 seconds, use their senses to make appropriate discriminations, follow human-given communicative cues, and even exhibit a certain degree of impulse control. Most of these skills, and especially impulse control, improve with age. However, there are also lots of individual differences when it comes to any given puppy’s cognitive abilities and temperament traits. Some of these differences persist into adulthood, although depending on the skill, a puppy’s performance is not always predictive of their future adult performance. Finally, since we know the pedigrees and thus relatedness of all Canine Companions dogs, we were able to calculate heritability—the amount of variation in a trait due to genetics—for these skills. For certain traits, such as willingness to engage in eye contact or follow a point, much of the variation between puppies can be explained by their genetic makeup. In conclusion, our research is starting to reveal when certain traits emerge, how they develop over time, and how they are influenced by genetic and environmental factors.

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