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Inhibitory Control In Dogs

Training enhances this ability
By Karen B. London PhD, January 2019, Updated June 2021
dog on stairs

There are many ways to assess cognitive abilities, and one that has recently been receiving a lot of attention is inhibitory control. The theory is that if individuals are capable of inhibitory control (restraining themselves from exhibiting a response that used to be beneficial but is no longer effective), that indicates a high level of cognitive functioning.

In a new study, “Training improves inhibitory control in water rescue dogs”, researchers asked whether training improves inhibitory control. They wanted to know if dogs who are highly trained have better inhibitory control than dogs without much training.

To study the influence of training on dogs, they compared the inhibitory control in dogs trained to perform water rescue with pet dogs of the same breeds—Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. The task that the dogs had to perform is an example of refraining from acting in a way that they had previously been taught to do in order to act in a more advantageous manner in a new situation. In effect, the dogs were being asked to be flexible and do something different than what they had previously been taught to do.

The original action that dogs were trained to perform was to choose the one upside-down cup (out of three) under which they saw a person place a piece of sausage. The sausage was always placed under the same cup, although each cup was rubbed with sausage so that they all smelled the same. After this training, the situation was changed, so the task was different. In the test condition, the sausage was put under a different cup, though again, the dogs are able to watch a person place the sausage there.


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The dogs that had been trained as water rescue dogs were better than the pet dogs at changing their behavior to perform the new task, indicating higher levels of inhibitory control. The researchers concluded that the training required to become water rescue dogs was responsible for the difference between the two groups.

That is possible, although it is also possible that the two groups of dogs are different in other ways. Dogs who succeed as working dogs are often different than pet dogs. They tend to be more responsive to human cues and have higher levels of emotional control, either of which could have affected the results. The authors of this study purposely chose water rescue dogs as their highly trained group of dogs because unlike many working dogs, they were not bred specifically for the purpose. However, that does not guarantee that the amount of training is the only difference between them and the pet dogs. Only dogs who succeed at the training required become water rescue dogs, so that group is not a random sample of retrievers. Additionally, people seeking water rescue dogs may have chosen dogs with qualities that make a positive outcome likely. It is not completely convincing that the water rescue dogs are essentially pet dogs who have been trained for a specific purpose.

Still, the results are intriguing, and it is exciting to consider the possibility that inhibitory control is flexible and can be improved in dogs based on their experiences.

Photo: Levent Simsek / Pexels

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life