How do dogs count??

Many have brought forward their pet dogs to the media with claims that their dog can count. It often involved certain reactions to specific questions posed by strangers to the dogs – usually based on simple mathematics. Slowly, people started debunking these attention-churning acts, with evidence that the owner was actually giving secret actions or secret hidden commands in his phrasing of words for his dog to follow.

The video below shows that dogs can count (somehow or rather)! Even without secret coded signals from the owner. The video is taken from the Animal Planet channel variety show, Pet Star. The show allows pet owners to flaunt the skills of their pet. Here we see that the judge, Debra, could not seem to find any secret signals between the two.

This raises the question. HOW IN THE WORLD DO DOGS COUNT???

I started to wonder if the body language of pet owners actually made a difference in their pets’ reactions. And in this case, if Maggie’s owner’s body language actually made Maggie know how many times to tap her paw.

Many of my dog owner friends shared the same sentiments that their body language and tone affected the way their dogs reacted to them. For instance, when friend A greeted his dog, A.J. with a subtle whine about how the latter had destroyed his play ball, A.J.’s initial cheery disposition turned into that of nonchalance about his owner’s return.

Similarly, could Maggie have sensed the different reactions of her owner and observers when facing the questions, and hence knew how many times to tap her paw?

This leads us to the observations of German comparative biologist and psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, who is most well known for his observations and contributing to what is now called the Clever Hans effect.Finding out about the Clever Hans effect answered almost all my questions.

First, let me explain what the Clever Hans Effect is.

It was a study starting in 1907, led by Pfungst, to investigate how Clever Hans, a horse could solve arithmetic questions. It was then concluded that, the horse would be able to answer the question if

  1. His owner could get the answer formulated in his mind
  2. The person posing the question knew the answer and was also in his sight

Keeping in sight the owner and the audience who posed the question allowed the horse to observe their reactions  and in turn know when to stop tapping his hoof in accordance to their reactions. For instance, if the answer were 4, he would tap his hoof until there was a change in tenseness amongst the audience. The change in tenseness was only natural among the (gullible if I might add) audience as they would wait in bated breath for Clever Hans’ answer, and would release their excitement gradually as he got closer to the answer.

Back to Maggie. I suppose that the reactions and expressions of the audience, the people posing the judges and her owner played a role in helping her know whe to stop tapping her paw. Judging by the way the crowd would cheer immediately after she got the answer, I have come to think that her arithmetic skills are simply more than meets the eye, but in fact a good observation of the reactions around her.

Hence, can dogs really do math? I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, but this post aims to give the general audience another take into the issue, rather than blindly believing or insisting that the dog has been trained to react to certain signals. It is clear that dogs do respond different to the body language, or expressions of those around them.


Heini K.P. Hediger, Issue with The Clever Hans Phenomenon: communication with Horses, Whales, Apes and people. Vol. 364, 16 December 2006, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,