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Have Cognitive Map Will Take the Shortcut

October 22nd, 2010

By Katherine Smith

Do animals have cognitive mapping abilities?

A cognitive map is a powerful memory of landmarks which allows novel short-cutting to occur. [1]

Bart (pictured on the right) and Katherine visit UCLA on October 6 and demonstrate novel short-cutting is possible in dogs.

UCLA is a daunting place to get around if you aren’t familiar with the geography.

The campus consists of 174 buildings on 419 acres with a College of Letters/Science and 11 professional schools.

Bart and I arrived about 11:30 to attend a lecture at the Law School that started at noon.

We purchased a parking permit and entered the parking structure P2 at level 5 (click here to open a map of the campus in a new window).

One good thing about UCLA is that when they designed the campus they didn’t use their opposing “dumb” and a bulldozer to level the 419 acres.

Therefore the entrance and exit to the P2 structure is at level 5, not level 1.

I had trouble finding a parking place and because it was raining and we were late, I exited the garage, drove up Charles E. Young Drive East (CEYE) and parked in the loading zone (LZ-2) in front of Dodd Hall. Bart and I went in and listened to about 20 minutes of the lecture.

We returned to the car, drove back to the P2 parking structure and finally found a parking place on level 7.

We took the elevator to level 3 and exited onto CEYE.

As we walked by the faculty center, I decided to impersonate a faculty member and stopped in for lunch.

Five professors teaching classes in Molecular Science were discussing environmental science and the latest geo-engineering solution to the environmental problems we face today.

I walked over to their table, apologized for interrupting, and asked them if they taught/discussed/thought about or were aware of the GEO4.

Everyone looked up in amazement, wondering if I was talking about a car.

I explained it was a massive United Nations report that posits humanity has probably passed the “unknown points of no return” because humanity’s footprint [its environmental demand] is 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth’s biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person.

They listened just long enough for me to give them the details from the GEO4 on “past trends and future prospects on the atmosphere, pollution, food, biodiversity, water and due to the dangers of climate change, water scarcity, dwindling fish stocks (one of them was a marine biologist) and the pressures on the land and the extinction of species,” and then they all got up at once and announced they had a class starting in 10 minutes.

I could hear them whispering, “How could that woman be on the faculty and take a dog to class.”

Bart and I left and headed up Charles E. Young Drive East (CEYE) to the Lu Valle Student Commons, just north of Dodd Hall.

A student of Professor Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) was in the commons having lunch and made the mistake of admiring Bart. She was familiar with Diamond’s answer to "Yali's 'Cargo' Question: Why "they" are so rich and "we" are so poor?

She liked my answer much better: “We” are so rich and "they" are so poor, because we in the East-West civilizations came from feudal societies and they in the North-South were “Caste.” Consumerism is anti-thetical to the Caste System because it requires a focus on pleasure and a conviction that it is right to seek the satisfaction of selfish desires in this life. The Question of Questions

We exchanged emails, Bart and I exited the commons at the rear and found ourselves on Charles E. Young Drive West.

Not sure of the way back, I looked down and told Bart to” find the car!” [2]

Without hesitation he headed south on Charles E. Young Drive West and turned right on Dickson Court and took a left onto Charles E. Young Drive East (CEYE). I assumed he was following a scent back to the car.

We passed the faculty center (he didn’t ask me if we were going back in) and I expected him to continue on CEYE to level 1 and the elevator entrance (the route we took initially when we left P2) but instead he crossed the street and headed for the auto ramp to enter the parking structure at level 5.

I wasn’t sure it was safe or even legal for a pedestrian to be on the ramp, but there weren’t that many cars so I followed him, wondering what he would do next.

Inside we turned left and went up the stairs on the east side of the parking structure to level 6. Reaching the landing, he went back inside and headed toward the elevators and the stairs on the opposite (west) side of the structure.

I guessed he would go up more stairs, but, to my surprise, he stopped at the elevator and looked up at me with one of those, “Do I have to do everything for you?”

I took the direction and pressed the button for level 7.

We exited the elevator and he found the car in a few minutes.

Now this would be impressive under any circumstances, but we weren’t driving our dog car (a Honda Element): we were driving a friend’s Lexus.

Even a human with only 5 million scent receptors could probably find the Honda, a dog kennel on wheels. Bart has 200 million and a hunting dog has 400 million scent receptors.

But then Bart sorts his toys with a Boolean algorithm, so I assumed he followed a scent trail back to where we parked the car.

On October 6, he wasn’t following a scent when he found the car at level 7.

So how did he do it?

Dogs have an awareness far beyond what is immediately obvious and what we have come to believe about our pets.

When we take a dog for a walk, he appears to be preoccupied with all the smells along the way and therefore it would not occur to us that they have the ability to process a cognitive map at the same time. [1]

Thinking about this convinced me to conduct my own research on cognitive mapping in dogs.

Cognitive Mapping in Dogs Verified on October 8, 2010

I invented a blind “find the car” test to “proof “ the cognitive map experience that Bart displayed on October 6.

October 8, Bart, his nephew Jeddy and I returned to the UCLA campus in my Honda Element. (click here to open a map of the campus in a new window).

I parked in the loading zone (LZ-1) in front of the Law School. Bart and I entered the Law School and exited out the back arriving at the entrance of LU Valle commons.

Mathew Mansur, a graduate student at the University agreed to help me document Bart’s cognitive mapping ability.

Bart stayed with Mathew while I returned and moved the Honda from the loading zone (LZ-1) to level 7 in the P2 parking structure. I parked in the same location as on October 6 so I would have a point of reference to compare the results.

I exited the parking structure using the elevator, got off at Level 3 and I took the identical route as we did on October 6, that is, north on Charles E. Young Drive East (CEYE) to the commons.

Mathew, Bart and I were now ready to start the “proof.” We positioned ourselves at the same location as I did on October 6, exiting the commons at the rear.

“Bart, Find the car!”

Bart took the same route as on October 6, circling around the Law School to the right; when we passed LZ-1 heading towards CEYE, we noted he didn’t even look to see if the Honda was still there.

When we got to CEYE, I expected him to turn left to the parking structure, but instead he went right (north) and headed for the loading zone in front of the commons (LZ-2). We noticed he looked puzzled when he stopped at the exact spot where the Lexus was parked on October 6.

I explained to him I wanted him to find the Honda not the Lexus.

He immediately headed east towards the side entrance of the Law School.

He made no attempt to return nor did he even look towards the entrance of the commons.

We opened the door and followed him into the Law School. Once inside, he turned right and headed south exiting at the front of the Law School and LZ-1. Once outside, as before, he gave no indication that he thought the Honda should still be at LZ-1 and crossed Dickson Court.

I expected him to turn right and retrace the route we took on the October 6, but this time he entered Murphy Hall and continued on a heading that, as the crow flies, would arrive at the entrance to P2.

Inside the building he went straight through the doors that lead to an outdoor balcony without an exit.

He looked for a way out and after a few minutes gazed over the balcony. I explained there was no exit and turned him around.

He didn’t hesitate and exited the balcony. But instead of retracing his steps and leaving Murphy Hall where we just entered, he turned left and followed the hallways until he found an exit, which put us on CEYE.

He turned left and headed to P2, but when he got to the faculty lounge he wanted to go inside for lunch.

I stopped and explained that we weren’t having lunch today.

He turned around and continued on CEYE to P2.

But instead of crossing the street as he did on the 6th, he followed the sidewalk along Westholme around to Hilgard and headed North towards Strathmore, where we encountered a woman walking her dog.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stopped, told him we need to get to the parking structure and positioned him in the opposite direction on Hilgard Ave.

He crossed the street and entered the structure using the auto ramp just as he did on the 6th.

Once inside, I assumed he would turn left as he did before and go up the stairs.

This time he went right, towards the elevator on the east side of the structure. I thought he would stop at the elevator but instead he went up the stairs adjacent to the elevator and exited at level 6 onto the auto ramps.

We traversed the auto ramps up until we reached Level 7 whereupon he found the car. [End of Blind test with Bart]

Next Mathew, Bart, Jeddy and I returned to the commons to have lunch.

We took the same route as on the 6th: down the elevator to level 3 and north on CEYE to the commons.

We stayed there about 90 minutes. At that point we separated, Mathew took Bart and I took Jeddy.

Mathew went out the back, I went to the entrance of the commons and told:

“Jeddy,to find the car!” [2]

Jeddy headed south in the direction of P2. This required we enter Dowd Hall and when we exited we were just to the right of LZ-1 and the Law School.

Like Bart, Jeddy ignored LZ-1 and went straight across the street.

Note, we are now taking a brand new route to P2 and therefore any theory of scenting has to be dismissed.

Reaching the other side of the street, he did not attempt to enter Murphy Hall but turned right taking us to CEYE, where he turned left heading straight for P2.

As we passed the faculty lounge, he took the same route as Bart, following the sidewalk on Westholme up to Hilgard Avenue.

And like Bart, he went around the corner heading for Strathmore Ave. Just as I was about to “help” him, he stopped, “marked” the spot, then turned around and headed back towards P2.

He took a diagonal route across the street (shortest distance) and, like Bart, went into the parking structure using the auto ramp.

Once inside the structure you can turn right or left and both ramps go up to level 6. If you go straight the ramp goes down to level 4. He went straight.

I resisted the impulse to “help” and let him continue to see what would happen.

At the first interchange in the middle of the structure there are three options. Turning left or right goes down to Level 3 but going straight goes back up to level 5.

He didn’t hesitate, went straight, and now we were on the ramp going back up to level 5.

At the next interchange there are three options, straight goes back down to level 4, right or left will take you up to level 6. Taking the ramp to the right is the shortest distance to level 6.

Jeddy went right (the short cut) and continued taking rights until we arrived on level 7 at the opposite side of the structure where the car was parked.

It took him a few minutes to find the Honda.

It appears Bart and Jeddy have cognitive mapping ability.

What are your thoughts?

Katherine, Bart and Jeddy can be reached at bart@k9baseball.com

Visit Bart’s website www.k9baseball.com


Bart and I just received this email:

Wow. That was a really great article. And I especially love the impersonation of a professor. Those dogs are definitely smart, but of course there are many documented cases of dogs following their owners to new homes hundreds of miles away.

Just a note about “documented cases of dogs following their owners to new homes”


“Common example which support the notion a a dog's ability to use a cognitive map to guide it behavior through space include its ability to find its way home from considerable distances or its ability to remember where it has buried its bones in its owner's backyard.

Owing to the repeated inability of experimenters to eliminate these simpler explanations over at least 15 years, and the confusion caused by the numerous contradictory definitions of a cognitive map, I (Andrew T. D. Bennett) argue that the cognitive map is no longer a useful hypothesis for elucidating the spatial behavior of animals and that use of the term should be avoided.”

Bart and Jeddy demonstrated novel short-cutting, the sensu Tolman, O’Keefe and Nadel defintion: a cognitive map is a powerful memory of landmarks which allows novel short-cutting to occur (humans).

An experiment is considered “blind,” when the subjects do not know whether they are in the control group or the experimental group.

A double-blind experiment is a procedure in which neither the subjects of the test nor the persons administering the test know the critical aspects of the experiment; "a double-blind procedure is used to guard against both experimenter bias and placebo effects"

In this case the subjects were not aware of the critical aspects or even that they were being tested.

And to make the test even more difficult the subjects did not speak the same language and therefore had to intuit (know or grasp by intuition or feeling) what was being asked of them to do.

To eliminate observer or experimenter bias, I enlisted the services of a third party.

His comment at the conclusion of the test: Had the dog found the car using a direct route he would have concluded it was some kind of trick.

Later when Jeddy found the car taking an entirely different path it was double blind because Jeddy didn’t even know he was being tested. Had he known about the test, he would have copied his Uncle Bart so he could get a higher grade.


[1] From The Journal of Experimental Biology199, 219–224 (1996)]

Drawing on studies of humans, rodents, birds and arthropods, Andrew T. D. Bennett shows that cognitive maps have been used to describe a wide variety of spatial concepts.

There are, however, two cognitive map de?nitions:

  1. sensu Tolman, O’Keefe and Nadel, is that a cognitive map is a powerful memory of landmarks which allows novel short-cutting to occur (humans).
  2. sensu Gallistel, is that a cognitive map is any representation of space held by an animal (humans and non humans).

Andrew T. D. Bennett believes there is no conclusive evidence to prove that animals have sensuTolman, O’Keefe and Nadel cognitive map abilities. He speculates that simpler explanations of the crucial novel short-cutting results are invariably possible.

The sensuGallistel variation of a Cognitive map Bennett agrees that Dogs do have: A mental representation a dog has formed of its physical environment as a result of spatial learning. The ability to develop cognitive maps in the dog is an evolutionaly hold-over from the wolf. For example, wolves are hunters who often travel miles from their den in the search for prey; hence, they needed to develop a "navigational' system to find their way back to their pack and den. Likewise, food may have been buried, and the wolf needed a means to 'remember' where the food was buried. How cognitive maps are formed in wolves, or for that matter other species such a birds, rats, or other mammals, is still not clear. Animal behaviorists hypothesize that animal forms cognitive maps via forming a picture-like representation of the salient geometric and topographical features in the environment. Common example which support the notion a a dog's ability to use a cognitive map to guide it behavior through space include its ability to find its way home from considerable distances or its ability to remember where it has buried its bones in its owner's backyard. Andrew T. D. Bennett

Owing to the repeated inability of experimenters to eliminate these simpler explanations over at least 15 years, and the confusion caused by the numerous contradictory de?nitions of a cognitive map, I (Andrew T. D. Bennett) argue that the cognitive map is no longer a useful hypothesis for elucidating the spatial behavior of animals and that use of the term should be avoided.

Andrew T. D. Bennett, Department of Pure Mathematics, University of Adelaide, Adelaide SA 5005, Australia, Department of Zoology, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK and *School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK

[2] I have never taught my dogs the command, “Find the car.” One day on a whim, I just said, “Bart, find the car,” and he found it. October 8 was the first time I told Jeddy to “Find the car.”

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