Much remains unknown about what goes on inside their heads.
A recent study published in the journal Animal Cognition shows that dogs have a hard time “unlearning” certain tasks that they have been trained to do. In Minding the gap: spatial perseveration error in dogs, researchers Britta Osthaus, Donna Marlow and Pippa Ducat demonstrated that dogs who have learned a specific sort of detour behavior have trouble deviating from that behavior once the set up has changed.
The researchers trained 50 dogs to go through a gap in a barrier in order to reach their guardians and receive a treat. Approximately 80 percent of the dogs learned this task in just a single trial. After 1 to 4 training trials, the dogs were confronted with a slightly different task. The gap in the barrier was no longer in the original position, but in a clearly visible alternative location along the barrier.
When tested with this new task, dogs consistently went to the original position of the gap rather than to the new opening that would allow them to reach their target. This error was made by 46 of the 50 dogs. The more times they had gone through the original gap, the more likely they were to make the error once the gap had been relocated.
This study shows that dogs have trouble “unlearning” at least certain sorts of spatial tasks and that they tend to persist with behavior that has led to success in the past, even when the task had changed. The researchers point out that this has implications related to both dog training and to future cognitive studies of dogs.
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.