Recently, Dr. Nadja Affenzeller reported the results of a follow-on study to her 2017 research, “Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).” In that study, work with a group of Labrador Retrievers demonstrated that playing after training improved retention for 24 hours (the study was reported on for The Bark by Karen London, PhD). Her new research, which seems to not only confirm the previous results but also, expand them to one year, has the potential to turn dog training as we know it on its head.
A component of the current pet-dog training approach is the “play-before-you-train” model, wherein dog owners are advised to play with their pups—tug of war, fetch, chase games—before attending a training class. The idea is to take the edge off the dog’s energy so he’s more able to focus on the lessons.
A calm demeanor makes it significantly easier for the dog owner to engage in the training course. Instead of spending time trying to force an angsty pup to cooperate, the owner can maintain the dog’s attention and breeze through the class like a pro.
But wait! If this practice is tried-and-true, what could possibly disrupt it? Turns out, we may have been doing things backward.
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According to Dr. Affenzeller, dogs may have a better chance of retaining tasks learned during training if their owners play with them after class ends. This retention is facilitated by the release of adrenaline and the activation of specific parts of the dog’s sympathetic nervous system due to the excitement of playtime. Together, signals firing off in the nerve cells and amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for a pup’s emotions as well as some memory) seem to boost the dog’s long-term memory for up to a year.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, Dr. Affenzeller tested a small group of 11 Labrador Retrievers, ages three to 10 years old, in a “discrimination” task. This required the dog to choose between two different objects: a blue basket full of woodchips and a green box containing kitty litter.
Take two of the adorable test subjects, Max and Poppy, for example. For the previous study, they had been trained to identify the blue woodchip-filled basket from among other objects presented to them. At the command, “Go,” Max and Poppy were required to place two paws close to their chosen item in at least 16 out of 20 trials to be considered successful.
There was a catch, though. Max and Poppy, along with the other nine dogs, had different experiences after their earlier training sessions. Whereas Max relaxed on a dog bed while his human chatted after class, Poppy was taken for a walk and given an opportunity to engage in one of the following activities with her owner:
•Fetching a ball
•Chasing a Frisbee
When they were tested with the same objects a year later, Poppy’s group, known as the “play group,” blew Max’s “resting group” out of the water. The playful pups only needed an average of 23 trials to refresh their memories in identifying their assigned objects. On the other hand, the resting dogs needed 50 trials on average to reach the same milestone. When Dr. Affenzeller further analyzed the data, she noted that Poppy and the rest of the playful dogs also made notably fewer errors in the second year’s test than Max and his chilled-out buddies.
Since there were so few dogs in this study, it can only be considered an indicator for what may become a brand-new approach in pet-dog training. Still, the question remains: How is this important to dog ownership as it stands today?
The Significance of Behavioral Training in Human-Dog Relationships
Acceptable behavior remains one of the major factors in people’s satisfaction with their canine companions. This is not only a matter of simple happiness within a given household, but also, an element that holds significant influence over a dog’s quality of life. Results of a study released in 2008 illustrated the degree to which training can affect a dog’s life, especially those who are on the sometimes difficult path toward finding their forever homes.
Examination of a sample of 5,750 dogs rehomed by the UK-based Dogs Trust revealed that “behavioral problems” were the leading cause of the relinquishment of a pet to a shelter, accounting for 58.6 percent of returns. Of the 2,185 pups who were returned, this resulted in a profound life disruption for approximately 1,280 of them—a devastating number for something so preventable.
The possibility of being surrendered to a shelter is not the only risk faced by dogs who do not receive adequate behavioral training. These pups are also vulnerable to being inappropriately abandoned or even euthanized if their owners decide they’ve had enough. (More than 10 percent of dogs in the United Kingdom were returned, abandoned or euthanized as a direct result of owner dissatisfaction with behavior. Of those returned, 40 percent were eventually euthanized after living in the shelter for an extended period.)
Another study in 2018 revealed a similarly problematic relationship between Dutch dog owners’ satisfaction and unruly pets. After surveying 977 participants, researchers learned that disobedience and aggression were among the most prominent behavioral issues plaguing dog owners; both had significant negative correlations with owner satisfaction. Fortunately, most respondents (89 percent) reported having addressed these problems by using food and play during training (those who used play alone comprised 57 percent of training-course attendees).
Formal training-course enrollment is not necessarily predictive of increased owner-satisfaction levels. However, this study illustrated that when owners are better equipped to train their dogs using appropriate aids (i.e., play and food), the odds of improving both dog behavior and owner happiness rise dramatically.
According to results of a survey distributed by Vet Street, most people train their dogs to some degree, either professionally (46.7 percent) or on their own (45.5 percent). Those who attend formal training courses often enroll in multi-course programs (47.5 percent). An additional 30 percent of dog owners extend training by several weeks to earn some type of official certification.
Given how widespread the inclination to train pet dogs is, and the significance this practice has for both the quality of the dog’s and human’s life, Dr. Affenzeller’s findings could lead to dramatic improvements in dog-training success in the years to come.
If owners can take advantage of such an easy training tool to achieve a higher level of agency in the quality and efficiency of training, we may begin to see a gradual downturn in the number of companion dogs surrendered. Further, as owners brace for the inevitable return to work after Covid-19 restrictions are safely lifted, they may face a reckoning when attempting to re-establish boundaries with overly bonded dogs. Effective behavioral training will be more important than ever to ensure that dogs and their human companions are able to maintain a positive quality of life into the short- and long-term future.