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Improving Your Dog’s Learning
Does playing after training sessions make a difference?
Work hard, play hard!

Many people know that going to sleep after studying helps consolidate the information and commit it to long term memory. (It works out beautifully if the subject was putting you to sleep anyway!) For dogs, a different approach may be worthwhile. Researchers conducted a study in dogs called “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)” and concluded that physiological arousal—in the form of play—following training has a positive effect on learning in dogs.

The subjects of the study were all Labrador Retrievers, which allowed the researchers to make sure that differences between breeds did not influence their results. The dogs were trained in a choice task between two objects that looked and smelled differently. Training took place in sessions of 10 trials with short breaks to walk around outside or rest in a waiting area in between each session. Dogs were considered successful at the choice task when they chose the right object eight or more times in two consecutive trials of 1O.

Once dogs reached this level of success, they either rested for 30 minutes in the presence of their guardian and one of the researchers, or they were active for 30 minutes. Specifically, that activity consisted of 10 minutes of walking on leash, then 10 minutes of off leash play (fetch with a ball or with a disc or tug, depending on the dog’s preference), then 10 more minutes of walking on leash. The dogs in each group (rest or activity) were monitored for salivary cortisol levels and heart rate to confirm that their states of physiological arousal were different. (They were.)

The following day, all of the dogs were tested again to see how many trials it took them to relearn the task. The difference between the two groups was remarkable. The dogs who walked and played after training took an average of 26 trials to relearn the task. The dogs who rested after training needed an average of 43 trials to reach that same level of success. The differences could be a result of chemical changes in the brain.

The brain is affected by chemicals that influence memory, whether those chemicals are naturally produced by the body or given as a drug. Various studies have shown that hormones and drugs that induce high arousal can have positive effects on memory if the brain is exposed to them after training.

The results of this study provide further evidence that arousal following training can be beneficial, since dogs in the active group were more highly physiologically aroused than dogs in the rest group. However, I’m not convinced that the data show that play itself is the key factor that caused the difference between the two groups in the study. Perhaps the walking part of the post-training activity played a role, and it may be that any form of exercise could be beneficial following training.

I hope researchers conduct studies in the future to investigate whether it is truly the play itself that improves learning in dogs. I would love to know if playing during training (as opposed to after) enhances dogs’ learning, whether because of physiological arousal, or simply because it might be easier to learn when having fun.

Whether play is the cause of the difference between the two groups or not, I’m definitely in favor of playing with dogs after training sessions. It provides a mental break for dogs after the hard work of training. Most dogs love training, and the fun of play prevents a negative feeling about the end of a session. Both training and play can strengthen relationships between people and dogs and doing them back-to-back may be especially powerful. I often play with dogs after a training session, and if that enhances their training because of positive effects on memory, that’s another bonus.

Do you play with your dog after training sessions?

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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.

photo by amsd2dth/Flickr

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