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Posted on Thu, May 5, 2011 : 6:28 a.m.

New study indicates that female dogs have enhanced visual skills

By Lorrie Shaw


Flickr photo courtesy of Johnathas Rodrigues

Cognitive biologist Corsin Muller in very interested in the behavior of dogs.

As a researcher from University of Vienna's "Clever Dog Lab," he set out to obtain the data to test the differences in the way that 25 male and 25 female dogs use their visual acumen to do things, in a very simple way — by first engaging the subjects in a game.

We've known that dogs can note changes in their environment: In working with dogs over many years, it's obvious that they recognize when something is new, or if something has moved — things like that.

But, Mueller and his research team wanted to see how well canines could distinguish size constancy — the ability to recognize that an object shouldn't change size if it disappears briefly.

By doing this study, Muller and his colleagues were trying to grasp whether dogs get better at understanding space if they're given educational toys when they're only a few weeks old.

In essence, are any limitations something that they are born with — or do they have to do with the environments they are raised in?

To gain more understanding, researchers decided that it would be best to expose the dogs to two very different sized balls first during play, then to remove the dogs from the room and finally to reintroduce them after the actual experiment was set up.

Here's how the test went: One of the balls sat to the left of a screen in front of the dog, and a person, who was hiding behind another screen, slowly pulled the ball with transparent string behind the screen. As the dog watched, the ball disappeared. Then, the ball reemerged on the other side. Since it was replaced by the other ball, it appeared to have grown or reduced in size. See a video taken during the study by clicking here.

The findings were curious.

Female dogs set their gaze on the balls that changed size for about 36 seconds — or twice as long than they did at balls that remained the same, apparently taking notice of the difference.

For males, they looked at each ball for about the same amount of time — interpreted as not responding to the variance in size.

The reasons that differences like this in the sexes occur typically lean toward an evolutionary basis, like the need for mothers to keep an eye on their puppies (which pretty much all smell the same), but the jury is out for now on that. Psychologist Emma Collier-Baker of the University of Queensland in Australia says that in order to firmly establish that, studying pregnant dogs or those with new litters would be necessary.

Here's an interesting factoid: More people prefer male dogs over female dogs for trailing and tracking? These activities require dogs to have excellent scent ability, and it's thought that males are more scent-oriented.

I'm curious as to how different breeds would fare in this experiment. After all, there are breeds that have increased abilities with regard to vision, like sight hounds, of course, as opposed to scent hounds, like beagles.

Read more on the study here.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger for and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email , contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.