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Do Dogs Have Object Permanence? Vet-Reviewed Facts & FAQ

Written by: Nicole Cosgrove

Last Updated on June 4, 2024 by Dogster Team

border collie dog with toy ball on the couch

Do Dogs Have Object Permanence? Vet-Reviewed Facts & FAQ


Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo


Dr. Paola Cuevas

Veterinarian, MVZ

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

All dogs are different. Some are territorial and aggressive; others are cute and friendly. However, all canines have impressive minds. Dogs are intelligent animals, and they have an excellent sense of object permanence. For example, if you launch a ball underneath the bed, your four-legged companion will find it!

How do dogs compare to cats, birds, and other animals? Can you help them perfect their tracking skills? Does a human baby match the cognitive abilities of a pup? These are just some of the questions we’ll answer in this post. So, join us as we discuss the exciting world of object permanence in dogs!

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What Is Object Permanence & Why Is It Important?

Object permanence allows us to memorize people, objects, places, and events. We know they exist in the world even though they’re not in our line of sight or making any noise. In contrast, if your mind hasn’t developed object permanence, it won’t be able to remember an object once it’s taken away.

This cognitive ability is essential for developing the brain’s social and mental capabilities. OP enables dogs to create mental images, memorize them, and use them to their advantage. Object permanence works similarly in various species, including cats, dogs, and humans.

White and gray color Pitbull puppy lying on dark wooden floor with red ball toy
Image Credit: Yurlick, Shutterstock

Do Canines Understand the Permanence of Objects?

The short answer is yes; they most certainly do. We bet you’ve experienced this dozens of times if you’ve owned a dog. Here’s how it works: you hide a treat, Frisbee, chasing ball, or rope toy, and your dog tries to find it. They understand clearly that the object of interest is still somewhere, although it can’t be seen now.

In other words, the dog can remember the qualities of objects (both simple and complex) that go invisible. Interestingly, the mind of a wolf is closely related to a dog’s. They both embrace the second and third stages in cognitive development when they’re less than three months old.

How Good Are They at Recognizing Hidden Items?

Dogs are roughly as good at OP as human babies (up to 2 years old). With proper training, they can find treats covered by one or two containers and rotated. Speaking of rotation, most canines easily handle 90°. However, they struggle at 180° and think the snack is still in the same spot as before the rotation started.

Dogs lose track of the object when they can’t see the direction of the rotation (90 or 180 degrees). In contrast, when the container doesn’t move, and the dog is told to walk around the planks that hold the containers, they always succeed. The treat can be put in any vessel, whether it’s a cup or a bucket. It just has to be invisible and not “give itself up” with a smell.

Can Dogs Do This With the Lights Off?

If we increase the difficulty of the test and conduct it in a dark room, the results will be much worse. Dogs keep an eye on the bucket’s location with the prize, which is how they find it later. Also, when there’s a delay in the process (the planks don’t move for 3–4 minutes), the canine’s job is much harder.

However, some dogs aren’t confused by the changes in the test. Those clever dogs can remember objects that are hidden behind a screen. For example, if you put a treat behind a screen and then replace it with a similar one (but slightly different in size, shape, and color), the dog can tell the difference.

Corgi dog in dark room looking through the window
Image Credit: Roselynne, Shutterstock

Which Animals Excel at Object Permanence?

Non-human primates like the Japanese macaque do a decent job of keeping track of objects that disappear in front of their eyes. However, the macaque always tries to find the target using practical tools and techniques. In contrast, gorillas apply mental representation, which means they’re capable of following the invisible displacements of an object and realizing when something is hidden.

In contrast, cats can “keep tabs” on objects, but their ability for OP is not as developed as in dogs. As for birds, magpies and crows are among the most intelligent creatures to take these cognitive tests. Just like dogs, they think and act like a human infant.

What About Human Babies?

Now that we covered dogs, primates, and crows, let’s talk about our species. So, when does object permanence develop in a human child? This concept starts to kick in in most toddlers when they reach 8 months of age. However, many psychologists and doctors today believe babies obtain this cognitive skill at 4–7 months old. Sometimes, it takes a bit longer.

However,  if you hide a toy under a bed or a pillow, and the child finds it, that means they have mastered OP. Even if they fail at the attempt, it’s still a clear indication of object permanence. Children reach the final, sixth stage of OP at 18–24 months. That’s when they can create mental images and use them to locate objects and achieve other goals.

baby lying on the bed with dogs
Image Credit: Sarah Chai, Pexels

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A Quick Guide to Keeping Your Dog Mentally Healthy

Like most pets, dogs rely heavily on mental stimulation to stay happy. If you let separation anxiety take over, it will lead to destructive behavior, mood swings, and even health issues. So, how do you properly care for a dog’s emotional and psychological well-being?

Here’s a quick look at some tried-and-true tricks:
  • Keep them entertained. Dogs are curious creatures and like to try new things. Start with a simple walk and slowly “upgrade” to a jog, climb, or hike. Next, take them on a road trip or try your luck with paddle boards. Some canines are head over heels for competitive games; others prefer tug-of-war, intellectual puzzles, and fetch.
  • Show the pet affection. If you let the dog off leash in the backyard and leave, it might hurt their feelings. While this doesn’t apply to all breeds, most canines like to be the center of attention and thrive on positive reinforcement. So, always include yourself in the games, ask your dog to perform tricks, and give praise where it’s due.
  • Feed the dog healthy food. A diet that lacks protein, fats, and vitamins will negatively affect your pup’s health. On the other hand, if you give them too much food, it can lead to obesity. That is why it’s so important to talk to a vet to find the right diet for the dog.
  • Have them checked by a veterinarian. Regular vaccinations, flea/tick treatments, and vet check-ups will keep your dog healthy. When it comes to conditions like dementia, eye problems, and cancer, the sooner you catch the disease, the greater the chances of treating it or at least slowing down its progression.

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Final Thoughts

Dogs are often compared to human babies since they’re just as cute and curious! Like toddlers, canines have a sense of object permanence that helps them remember invisibly displaced items. As we learned today, they match the mind of a 2-year-old child. Dogs use OP to play games like fetch, solve puzzles, and retrieve toys.

Gorillas and crows might be slightly better at understanding object permanence, but that doesn’t prevent our fluffy companions from being extraordinary K9 officers, search-and-rescuers, and service dogs. So, play plenty of intelligent games with your pup, stimulate their brain with positive reinforcement, and keep them well-fed!

Featured Image Credit: Julia Zavalishina, Shutterstock

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