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Competitiveness and Quick Thinking
Study looks at how household rivalry affects the way dogs think.

The dynamics in multi-dog households is different in every home, but rarely studied. Most research tests dogs in a laboratory and looks at interactions between animals who don’t know each other. But Canisius College professors Christy Hoffman and Malini Suchak decided to take a different approach in their study on competitiveness and decision making. They visited 37 multi-dog households as part of their latest research.

"We really wanted to look at the impact of the relationship between the dogs on their behavior,” explained Malini. “Doing that in a setting natural to the dogs, with dogs they already know, is really important.”

To get a measure of how competitive dogs were within each household, their owners were asked to fill out a survey called the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). Low or high rivalry is determined by the frequency of aggressive behavior displayed towards the other dogs, particularly around desired resources like food.

The next part of the study looked at the dogs’ decision making around eating food or following one of their housemates. At each house, a research assistant placed two plates of food in front of two dogs. One pup was allowed to approach the plates and eat the food from one before being walked out of the room. Then the second dog was then allowed to make a choice. If the pup followed the first dog, he arrived at an empty plate. If he didn’t follow, he went straight to the remaining plate with the food.

The researchers found that the less competitive dogs were more likely to follow their housemate out of the room, but only when they had to make an immediate decision. Extra time changed the outcome.

"Low and high rivalry dogs only differed in the choices they made when there was no delay," Christy says. "When they had to wait five seconds before making their choice, all dogs tended to go directly to the full plate.”

The professors think that less competitive dogs have a knee jerk reaction to follow their housemates, but when forced to wait, took time to think about the situation and ultimately went for the food.

Christy and Malini also did a variation of the experiment where the first dog was replaced by a person. The results were similar, with less competitive dogs following the human demonstrator over the food when they had to make an immediate choice.

They believe this has to do with the personality of less competitive pups since the characteristic extended beyond their relationship with other dogs. It seems that competitive pups are more likely to think for themselves and less likely to blindly follow, but they hope to do more research to further explore the findings.

How do you think this plays out with your pups?

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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