Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Friends Across Species
Dogs and people are truly the best of friends, but that doesn’t mean that dogs can’t be buddies with other animals, too. Though dogs and cats are often considered natural enemies, countless households have a dog and a cat who very close. They play together, sleep together and generally prefer to be near one another.
Less common, but still far from rare, are the dogs who have strong social connections to other species. I have one client whose dog loves to head upstairs in their apartment complex to hang out with the neighbor’s rabbit. A friend of mine has a ferret who plays daily with her dog until they are both exhausted.
Dogs and pot-bellied pigs can be great chums, and countless canines love spending time with their horse pals. There are plenty of dogs whose friends include sheep and goats.
I know of a couple of parrots and parakeets who socialize with dogs, and one pair of these vocalize together with great regularity. I’m not going to lie—the howling dog and the screaming bird don’t sound pleasant to me, but they seem quite happy with their symphony, and that’s what matters.
If your dog has a friend outside the dog or human species, how do they interact?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Differential use of the left and right nostril
The common wisdom that dogs can smell fear doesn’t give dogs full credit to the nuances of their ability to sense emotion through their noses. A recent study titled “The dog nose “KNOWS” fear: Asymmetric nostril use during sniffing at canine and human emotional stimuli” examined dogs’ tendencies to sniff various substances with the right or the left nostril. Exploring this side bias may seem like looking at random details, but the side of the nose used to sniff something tells us a lot about the dog’s emotional reaction to the odor. The use of one side of the body indicates a differential use of one side of the brain or the other, which is a clue to the dog’s emotions.
The left side of the brain processes more positive emotions such as happiness and excitement as well as stimuli that are familiar. The right side of the brain tends to take over when a dog is processing negative emotions such as sadness or fear as well as novel stimuli. In general, the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and vice versa. However, the nose is an exception; the right nostril sends information to the right side of the brain to be processed and the left nostril sends its information to the left side. The findings of this study suggest that the pathways used to process various olfactory stimuli are dependent on more than just whether they elicit negative or positive feelings.
Eight odors were tested—four from dogs and four from humans. The four human odors were collected as sweat from donors who were joyful, fearful, physically stressed, or in a neutral situation. The joyful and fearful states were elicited by movies, and the physical stress odor was collected after donors ran for 15-minutes. The four canine odors were collected from dogs who were happy following a play session with the guardian, stressed by isolation in an unfamiliar place, disturbed by a stranger approaching the car, and dogs who were asleep. The dogs who “donated” odors were different from the dogs whose sniffing behavior was studied.
To further explore the phenomenon of side bias in sniffing, the guardians of the dogs in the study filled out a questionnaire related to each dog’s temperament. During the study, dogs were led to a video camera under which was mounted a Q-tip saturated with various odors. The videos captured the dog’s sniffing behavior so that it was possible to determine a laterality index for each dog for every odor based on the amount of time spent sniffing with each nostril. A laterality index of 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the left nostril and negative 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the right nostril. Dogs’ cardiac activity was also recorded during the tests of each odor.
I’m sure it’s the science geek in me, but I got a kick out of reading the sentence, “Results for nostril use are shown in Figure 2.” Three of the odors elicited consistent sidedness in nostril use and five of them did not. Dogs more frequently used the right nostril to sniff the canine isolation odor. They more frequently used the left nostril to sniff the human fear odor and the odor from human physical stress.
There were two ways in which the results of the questionnaire were correlated with the laterality pattern for a particular odor. The higher a guardian ranked the dog’s fear/aggressiveness to other dogs, the more likely that dog was to use the right nostril for sniffing the disturbed canine odor. This suggests that individual differences in emotional arousal and perhaps even in temperament influence asymmetries in sniffing behavior. Dogs with higher scores for predatory behavior used the left nostril more for sniffing the odor that came from physically stressed humans. This makes sense when we consider that it is structures in the left side of dogs’ brains that are involved in predatory behavior.
Dogs’ brains are every bit as amazing as their noses, as research about both of them reveal!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A stressful situation for dogs
A canine whodunit is the set-up for this video. It’s not a murder mystery and there’s no butler, but still the crime must be solved. When two dogs are asked who took the cookie off the counter, one dog reaches out and puts his paw on the other dog. The gesture clearly says, “She did it.” I do like the use of a single behavior as the basis for an elaborate joke, and the idea is unquestionably adorable. Though it’s easy to have a little chuckle about it, it’s also easy to feel concern because both of these dogs show signs of stress.
The dogs appear to have quite a bit of training, and are probably on stays. The dog on our left is presumably responding to a visual cue to bop the other dog with his paw, though it is supposed to look like he is answering the speaker’s question about who is the cookie-taking culprit.
Neither of the dogs looks comfortable as both exhibit signs of anxiety. There are a lot of tongue flicks, constant worried expressions, multiple stress yawns, slightly cowering postures, and the closed-mouth look of dogs who are not relaxed. It may be that the dogs are stressed by the anticipation of the bop by one dog to the other. Neither dog seems too happy about it. The dog who paws at the other dog tongue flicks before or during every repetition of this action, and the dog on the receiving end often does the same afterwards.
Another possibility is that the camera is stressing them out, which is really common in dogs. Either way, although both dogs are obedient and the basic idea behind the skit is amusing, the emotional state of the dogs ruins it a bit for me.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs react to magic
Magician Jose Ahonen made treats disappear right in front of dogs’ noses. When I watched videos of his work, I saw dogs who understood that a treat had been there and that it MUST still be nearby. Their reactions made it clear that they knew the treat had gone missing.
One common response was for the dogs to look down at the ground as though the treat had fallen. A fallen treat is probably a familiar experience for most dogs, so they were using a search strategy that had worked in the past. Many of the dogs began to sniff and investigate the immediate area. Another frequent reaction was to look at Jose or in the direction of the camera, where perhaps the guardian and a camera operator were. Many dogs look to people for information or for help when they are confused. I see this in training or when a toy has rolled somewhere inaccessible, so it was not surprising that dogs who were puzzled about the location of the treat did this. A number of dogs pawed at Jose’s hands, which is such a common response to a closed fist around a treat that I’ve used it many times as part of training a dog to “Shake” or “High-5”.
The most interesting aspect of the video is that dogs in it appear to show object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. Object permanence is considered a major milestone in human development. Many children have been tested—an experimenter hides a toy while the child is watching and then observes whether the child can find it. Most children show object permanence by the age of one year. A lot of dogs have shown object permanence in scientific studies, but it is not universal in the species.
The magic tricks with dogs in these videos were for entertainment and are not controlled experiments. The smell of treats was still present, so that could have tipped the dogs off that the treats still existed. Their actions are certainly not conclusive evidence that dogs are cognitively capable of object permanence, but they are still suggestive of it.
I wish I could see a longer clip of each dog because I’m curious how much time they spent searching and whether they showed increasing frustration. It was a relief to realize that each dog was given a treat before and after the disappearing trick, which I would imagine lessened any distress about the missing treat. For some of the dogs, the most distressing part may have been the laughter of the people observing. I think dogs can tell when they are being laughed at, and it bothers me. Still, it's really hard not to laugh when you watch this (I know I did!), so I can hardly blame people for that.
How do you think your dog would react to a magician making a treat disappear?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The short answer is that it depends
Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.
Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”
Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.
Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)
Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.
His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.
Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.
Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.
His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.
That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.
Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.
How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.
When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.
I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.
I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.
The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.
What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog bothered by foul water?
Dogs are famous for drinking out of the toilet. Though that does make me wrinkle my nose, it is far from the most disgusting water that I have seen dogs drink. I’m not talking about dogs who are lost in the desert taking in fluid from any source to stay alive. Even from my human perspective, that seems like an extremely rational choice.
I’m talking about healthy, well-cared for pets who think that a nearly dried up scum-covered pond that is more muck than water looks extremely appetizing. I’m thinking of dogs who pass up a freshly filled, clean water bowl to lick the muddy spots that melted off my snow boots and onto the kitchen floor. And I’m calling to mind those individuals who are drawn to the water that has run through the pot containing a houseplant and into the saucer below. Yes, I’m referring to the one that is coated with algae and has probably never been cleaned.
Amazingly, dogs tend to drink from the most unlikely sources without incident the vast majority of the time. Some weird water choices are usually harmless. If your dog licks the water off your legs after a shower, it’s unlikely to be a problem, especially if you rinsed well. However, their interest in fluids that we don’t want them to drink can be disastrous. There’s the obvious risk of exposure to serious water-borne diseases such as leptospirosis and giardia. Even more alarming is the risk to dogs who are attracted to antifreeze or windshield de-icing fluid because the ethylene glycol they contain can cause kidney failure and even death.
By comparison, the toilet seems like a reasonable place for the average canine to quench his thirst!
Does your dog have a favorite watering hole other than his bowl?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
These dogs don’t act quite like other dogs
When people accumulate animals in large enough numbers that the basic needs of those animals cannot be met, it’s called hoarding. Rescues of dogs from hoarding situations often make the news because the conditions are generally horrific—unimaginably unhealthy and unsanitary. There is usually significant malnutrition and disease, and death is common. Whenever possible, dogs rescued from such situations are nursed back to health and adopted into pet homes.
Their physical health can recover to varying degrees depending on the dog, but what about their behavioral health? There are many anecdotal reports of abnormal behavior in dogs who have been removed from hoarding situations, but the question of how hoarding affects dogs behaviorally has not been well documented. A recent study called “Behavioural characteristics of dogs removed from hoarding situations” addresses this issue by investigating how previously hoarded dogs who have been rehomed differed behaviorally and psychologically from a comparison group of rehomed pet dogs.
Dogs for the study were recruited with notices in newsletters of various rescue and shelter organizations seeking qualified dogs. To be included in the study, a dog had to have been removed from a hoarding situation. The authors of the study defined a hoarding situation as “a living environment where a person or persons accumulate animals in numbers that exceed the person’s abilities to provide for the basic needs of the animals, resulting in animal suffering”. The study included 408 dogs who had been rescued from hoarding situations.
The guardians of the hoarded dogs filled out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was developed to measure various behavioral characteristics of dogs. The C-BARQ is a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs.
The control group of 11,277 dogs came from the C-BARQ database and consisted of dogs of similar age and breed. All of the control dogs lived in homes with people who were not first time guardians. This was done to match the study group; fewer than 10 of the hoarded dogs were with first time guardians, a factor which has been shown to influence behavior.
Not surprisingly, many behavioral differences existed between the two groups. Dogs from hoarding situations were more fearful and more sensitive to touch than the control dogs. They showed more behavior associated with attachment, attention-seeking and separation anxiety. They exhibited a greater frequency of urination and defecation when left alone, destructive chewing, submissive urination and repetitive behaviors.
Dogs rescued from hoarding situations were less trainable and less aggressive. They were less likely than the control dogs to be overly excitable or energetic. They had a lower probability of being persistent barkers, of chasing small animals, or of exhibiting rivalry for resources with other dogs. They were not as likely to roll in foul-smelling material or to chase their own tails compared with dogs in the control group.
To sum up, there were substantial behavioral differences between dogs who had been rescued from hoarding situations and dogs with more typical life experiences. It’s easy to be dismayed when reading about the behavioral abnormalities of dogs who come from hoarding situations.
There’s good news, though, and I always like to look for the bright side. Many of these dogs can be placed in loving pet homes. Also, the more we learn about their atypical behavior, the better equipped we are to help them recover and the more motivated we are as a society to prevent such damaging situations in the first place.
Please share your experiences if you have adopted a dog who previously lived in a hoarding situation.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Experience with relevant objects has no effect
Anyone whose dog loves to get into the garbage for a trash party or is better than Houdini at escaping from a crate knows that dogs are problem solvers. In fact, their ability to solve problems is an active area of research, and the results are not always intuitively obvious. (That’s the way that scientists express what other people might say as, “Whoa! That’s not what I expected!”)
In the study, “Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs”, researchers studied how two factors relate to how well dogs solve problems presented as physical tasks. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the ability to inhibit themselves was correlated with increased problem solving ability and whether experience with objects relevant to the problems made a difference. These two variables were chosen for investigation because there is evidence that they are both important in problem solving ability across a range of species, including humans.
In order to address these questions, they recruited 63 Border Collie puppies in pet homes and studied them over a period of three years. Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups that differed in their experiences with physical tasks.
The first group (enrichment group) received toys that gave them the opportunity to learn about the physical effects of gravity, attachment, and support and also a set of toys that required attending to a size differential between objects to access a treat. The second group (manipulative group) received toys that gave them the same opportunity as the first group to manipulate toys, to push and pull on handles and other parts of the toys, but which did not teach them about the effects of such actions or the importance of relative size. The third group (control group) had only the typical toys used by guardians for stimulation, such as ropes, balls and various rubber toys. The dogs in the experimental and manipulative groups (but not in the control group) took part in a string-pulling study that provided an additional educational experience about the physical effects of their actions.
All dogs, no matter which experience group they were in, were taught three inhibitory tasks. One was being required to wait for permission before taking a treat on the floor in front of them. (This task is often called “Leave It” though some people using this cue never allow the dog to take the treat he was told to leave.)
The second involved the opportunity to obtain a treat from underneath each of two transparent cups turned upside down. The catch was that there were three cups and the dog would only be permitted to knock over two of them. He had to avoid knocking over the empty cup, as the final cup was made unavailable after the dog had knocked over two cups. This is very hard for dogs, especially if the empty cup is in the middle between the cups with treats.
The third task involved the dog being caught by his leash on something like a tree or a lamp post. The guardian would call the dog, but the dog had to first move away from the person in order to untangle himself.
To assess dogs’ level of inhibitory control, they were tested on each of the tasks after a month of practice and scored on a scale of 0 to 2, which 2 representing the highest level of inhibition. This study did not distinguish between learned and inherent levels of inhibition, but simply looked a dog’s ability when tested to control himself in the various tasks.
To sum up, dogs were given one of three levels of experience with objects and their levels of inhibitory control were assessed. They were then tested with four problem-solving tasks. The problems were all designed to be difficult in order to detect potential improvement based on experience. (If the tasks were too easy, researchers would be unlikely to detect any role of experience in dogs’ ability to solve the problem.)
One main result of the study is that there was no difference found in the problem-solving abilities between the three groups of dogs. That is, success at solving the problems was not related to whether a dog was in the enriched, manipulation or control group. Another result of the study was that dogs’ inhibition scores were related to their performance in two of the problem-solving tasks, but not the other two. Of the two tasks in which performance was related to inhibition, one task was positively associated with success (high inhibition predicted success at solving the problem) and the other was negatively associated with success (a low level of inhibition predicted success at performing the task correctly).
The dogs in this study did not exhibit the ability to transfer knowledge about physical rules learned in one situation to another, similar situation. The researchers conclude that dogs do not generalize from one problem-solving task to another. They hypothesize that dogs approach each problem as a novel task unrelated to others that they have already solved.
I’m curious about these conclusions because of my own experiences observing dogs. I don’t have data on canine problem solving, so my surprise about this study’s results only reflects my anecdotal observations. It seems that dogs who understand how to get food from one style of Kong or toy have an easier time figuring out similar puzzles. It also seems that once a dog has solved the mystery of one “secure” trash can, others are quick to be defeated by that same dog. Perhaps experience only matters with highly similar tasks, or when the task is presented in the same location. Another possibility is that if the motivation to solve the problem is high enough, a dog will perform at a higher level. Kongs and trash cans may provide more motivation than a puzzle in a lab setting. All of these variables would be interesting to explore in future studies. Such work is incredibly intensive and time-consuming, and I applaud these researchers for investigating canine problem solving abilities in a long-term, controlled experiment.
Do the conclusions of this study match your expectations?
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Power of Name-Calling
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.
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