Can animals count? Not when taught, not by prompting, but simply because they can?
I’m not sure.
One of the most famous examples of a ‘counting’ animal is Clever Hans, a German horse who, it was claimed, could count, spell, do arithmetic, and tell time. This was at the start of the 20th century. He communicated his answers by stamping one foot on the ground.
When he was questioned by people other than his owner, he still came up with the correct answers, so fraud was ruled out. However, it soon emerged that he could only answer questions by people who already knew the answer.
What Hans did (and he really was clever), was to read the cues that the questioner unconsciously displayed when he (Hans) arrived at the correct answer. For example if the question was ‘how much is 3 times 2’, Hans would stamp on and on until he saw that the questioner was anticipating him to stop. At 6. Which was the right answer.
Read more about Hans on Wiki.
But can Casey, our black lab, count? Before I go for a run in the morning I warm up by running up and down the staircase. Usually 3 times. Casey runs up with me, but when I run back down, he stays up, something he normally doesn’t do. When I run back up, he waits, sees me run down again, and again does not follow. The third time I run up and down he comes with me, ready to leave.
Obviously one of his cues is that I am dressed for running, so he knows I’m not running up the stairs to look for something I instantly forget once I’ve arrived upstairs. He usually follows me around, but in those cases he also follows me down. So what other cues are there? I am careful to maintain the same rhythm each time I run up and down, yet he ‘knows’ when it’s the third time.
So is he counting?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that many animals have an incredible ability to read signals we don’t even know we’re transmitting. And, it appears, they are good at tracking our eye movements!
Here is an interesting little article about supposed canine ‘ESP’.