Dog Research: Do Dogs Want To Work For Their Food?

Have you ever had an Aha Moment? Also known as a Eureka Moment, it is that incredible feeling you get from deep inside when a life event gives you clarity, or when suddenly you understand a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. To everyone who has Researchers in Sweden recently investigated which a dog prefers – an easy paycheck or one that requires him to problem solve to achieve. Guess what they learned? Yep, dogs much prefer the opportunity to control their environment and have to earn their keep.experienced it, you know how profoundly that moment can change your day…or even your life.

Now think about how you typically feed your dog his meals. More than likely, you feed your pet at least some – if not all – of his meals in a bowl on the floor. Yes, I know, you are probably thinking right about now what an Aha Moment could possibly have to do with how you feed your dog, and why that matters. Well, I’ll explain.

Researchers in Sweden recently investigated which a dog prefers – an easy paycheck or one that requires him to problem solve to achieve. Guess what they learned? Yep, dogs much prefer the opportunity to control their environment and have to earn their keep.

(“Positive affect and learning: exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in dogs” by Ragen McGowan et al, University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden)

About the study

The research looked at six matched pairs of beagles who were taught how to manipulate three of six pieces of equipment in a room. Their success was marked with a distinct sound and followed by a treat.

A week after their training sessions, the dogs were tested in a new environment. Each dog was an experimental dog for half the time and a control dog for the other half. The testing room included a start arena with all six pieces of equipment and a gate leading to a runway that led to the reward. After leading the experimental dog into the room, an assistant turned away offering no additional interaction. When the dog did the behavior it was previously taught to do, the gate opened which gave access to the ramp leading to the reward. With the control dogs, the gate was opened after the length of time it had taken for the experimental dog to solve the puzzle, so the dog spent the exact amount of time in the room as its pair. The only difference between the two conditions was whether or not the gate opening was contingent on the manipulation of the equipment.

Among the findingsdog behavior research from Sweden on enrichment and training

Interestingly, dogs were quick to enter the test room initially but the control dogs became increasingly reluctant. By the end of the test sessions, the control dogs even had to be coaxed from a handler to enter the area. Also dogs acting as controls were observed to chew on the operant device on several occasions, but not when acting as experimental animals. That chewing tended to occur more toward the end of the study during the last matched pair of testing after they had already served as the experimental animals three times. Researchers hypothesized this behavior may have been caused by frustration because no longer did manipulation of the equipment (a behavior that had in the past resulted in a valued positive reinforcement consequence) lead to the door opening.

Experimental dogs were more active in the start arena than control dogs despite the fact that the dogs had equal knowledge of the reward at the end of the runway and thus should have shown similar levels of anticipatory excitement. In other words, “the dogs were experiencing a learning process that they did not experience when they were acting as controls.”

Also, researchers found that experimental dogs wagged their tails more. More than that, researchers found the dogs wagged their tails more when expecting a food reward or contact with a human and less when expecting contact with another dog. (Keep in mind, these dogs were never deprived of contact with other dogs, but they did not receive treat items regularly and they received less human contact than other dog contact. All of these motivating operations may have contributed to where the dogs had the greatest value.)

Their scientific conclusion

“The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

What is the take home lesson for you?

When we bring animals into our homes, we need to remember that enrichment is such an important piece of setting ourselves, our pets, and our relationship up for success. Providing our pets with opportunities to problem solve, exercise their minds and bodies, and use their senses allows them to expend energy they need to use in positive ways and also adds to their quality of life.

And, I don’t know about you, but I happen to love seeing our Sam’s tail wag.

Always remember…be creative AND have fun!

I’d love to hear from you your ideas of how you engage your pet in active learning.













Dog Myth About Chew Toys

Fact or myth: If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything. Renowned trainer Jean Donaldson, shares her thoughts. You can read Jean’s other top dog myths here.

dog chewing behavior myth by Jean Donaldson


Backyard Enrichment Ideas For Your Dog

Giving our pets ways to exercise their mind and body is so important. Remember, if you do not provide your pet with an outlet for that exercise – one that your pet finds valuable, your pet will come up with his/her own idea. And you may not like his/her choice. Here are a couple of creative enrichment activity ideas I found recently that people have shared.

Puzzle Toy

Fun With The Hose

Playing In A Kiddie Pool

Solving A Dog Chewing Problem With Positive Reinforcement

The other day, I was sitting in the home of a friend as she was telling me about one of the issues they are having with their dog. “He chews on things he shouldn’t be chewing on like furniture,” she said.

Her otherwise loveable joy of her life was sitting at my feet at the time raising his face as I scratched beneath it. But I stopped scratching and when I did, he began looking around. Before long he found his way to a table leg and proceeded to put his mouth around it.

I asked for some of his toys, and among them was a chew toy. Mary put the toy on the ground. His attention was immediately diverted and he spent the rest of our conversation laying down, completely engaged in his new activity. The leg of that table was of no more interest to him.

So what was the lesson here?

Well, it is important to understand the function of behavior and know that all behavior occurs for a reason – and that reason is to get a consequence. If the behavior is reoccurring and even strengthening, then we know that the consequence (what occurs immediately after the behavior) is of value to the animal (positive reinforcement). When given a choice, animals will chose to do what gets them the consequence of the greatest value.

And, in this situation, when Mary’s dog was without attention and activity options, he chose to chew on the table leg. A guess is that chewing on it gave him as a consequence of sensory stimulation and intermittent attention. (Please click here to read more about intermittent reinforcement.) My predication would be that if all things remain the same, that he will continue to choose to seek out that table leg or another household object when he is without sensory stimulation or training - solving a dog behavior problem with positive reinforcement

Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

So, after looking at the behavior in the context of its environment, how can you solve it in the most positive way?

Well, once you have an understanding of what is giving that behavior value to the animal (what is reinforcing that behavior), then you can devise a plan that

a) involves modifying the environment whenever possible so as to not set the occasion for that behavior to occur in the first place (because we know that practice builds fluency)
b) plan for modifying the consequences of that unwanted behavior so as to not give that behavior value in the happenstance that it should occur
c) teach the animal new, acceptable behaviors that will result in the animal getting the same amount or greater value consequence as the behavior you do not want to see.

What are some ideas for solving this particular behavior issue?

Overall, Mary can increase her dog’s environmental and behavioral enrichment through a combination of exercise, activity games and toys, and training. Mary can limit access to the ‘off limits’ furniture and/or paint it with Bitter Apple or a similar product, plan ahead to involve her dog in physical activity before having guests over or before sitting down to watch tv so as to temporarily reduce the value of chewing furniture, teach her dog an alternative behavior like settling (laying down) and ask her dog to do that behavior before visiting with guests or watching tv, provide her dog with activity and enrichment toys before times when her dog is most likely to chew.

Is your pet doing something you do not like? My challenge to you is this: Instead of punishing and blaming the animal, look at the behavior in terms of why that behavior is important to your pet. Then, teach him what he can do instead to get just as valuable a consequence.

Using Antecedent Arrangement In Solving Pet Problems

solving dog and pet behavior problemWhen it comes to modifying a pet’s behavior, my focus is always on the most positive least intrusive solution. I look at what is happening in the environment to set that specific behavior into motion in the first place, what the consequences are to that specific behavior that are maintaining or even strengthening it, and what can be changed both in the environment and in terms of skills that can be taught to set that animal up for success.

In scientific terms, I use applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior antecedent arrangement to prevent parrot screamingproblems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a bird biting or a dog barking) and the related environmental context that signals and reinforces it. We ask, “What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling?“ And, “What happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?“

But for the purposes of this specific post, I want to focus on the problem behavior prevention piece – or antecedent arrangement. This is very important because practice with any behavior builds confidence and fluidity.

When I look at modifying an unwanted behavior with a pet in the most positive way, I look at what function that behavior served to the animal and what skills that animal needs to learn to solve the problem. While teaching a pet those skills (replacement behavior) that can give the pet equal to or more reinforcing value than the unwanted behavior, managing the environment so as to not give the pet opportunities for reinforcement of the unwanted behavior is going to help both of us succeed and succeed much quicker.

And, when I talk about changing behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way, there are many times where careful management of the environment so as to not set that behavior into motion in the first place is all that is needed.

For example, if I know that my using a hair dryer is an antecedent for my bird’s screaming, then I can give him something to occupy his attention before turning on my hair dryer, or I can simply use my hair dryer in another part of my house. If I know that my dog is going to be over the top with excitement when company comes over, I can take my dog for a long walk first to lessen the value of over the top behaviors.

My challenge to you is this – when you think about your pet’s annoying behaviors, think about what is occurring in the environment to set those behaviors into motion. Are there simple changes you can make to prevent that chain from occurring?


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

A Tip For Solving Dog And Pet Behavior Problems

I have heard the story so very often. “I want my dog to stop jumping on people.” “I want dog to stop chewing on my shoe.” “I want my bird to stop screaming.”

differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior in dog trainingIt is a natural tendency for many when they are frustrated to think only in terms of stopping it. The problem is that thought process often leads to solutions that involve some sort of aversive stimulus to try and put an end to the irritating behavior. And there are so many negative ramifications that can result for your pet AND your relationship with your pet. Please read my post about my thoughts on punishment.

Here is the thing. All behavior occurs for a reason, and that reason is to produce a consequence. If the consequence is something of value to the animal then the behavior will reoccur and even strengthen. If the consequence does not have value then the behavior will decrease in frequency and even extinguish.

What we have to realize then is that, if our pet is jumping up, chewing a shoe or screaming, it is because that behavior has a positive outcome for the animal. Simply ignoring or punishing the behavior won’t serve to teach the animal what you’d rather it do instead.

To solve a dog or other pet behavior problem in the most positive, least intrusive way, a great strategy is DRI or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior.  (Note that there are other types of differential reinforcement strategies, for this post my focus is on incompatible behaviors.)

DRI is a systematic process of reinforcing a wanted behavior that can not be done simultaneously with the unwanted behavior while also completely and totally ignoring the unwanted behavior.

For example, an incompatible behavior to jumping up is sitting or laying down; and an incompatible behavior to screaming is talking in words.

I learned from Dr. Susan Friedman that an important consideration in identifying replacement behaviors is the function of the unwanted behavior for the animal.  “If we select replacement behaviors carefully, we can teach our pets to communicate their needs in acceptable ways while preserving the valid function of these behaviors at the same time,” she said.

The strategy is most effective if the incompatible behavior produces a consequence of at least the same value, if not more, for the animal; and if the incompatible behavior is something the animal already knows.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Giving Your Dog An Enrichment Toy Solves Behavior Problems

Something to keep in mind…If your dog is engaged with an activity enrichment or chew toy, these are some things your dog WILL NOT be engaged it:

Destroying furniture

Looking for a smelly shoe

Barking at passers-by

Pawing at you for attention

Digging in the yard

Begging at the table

dog enrichment toy




Making Your Own Interactive Dog Toy

Providing pet enrichment is so important when it comes to preventing behavior issues and quality of life. You can make your own interactive dog toy. Here is an example of a low cost foraging toy I made for our dog, Sam.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Pet Enrichment Game – 101 Things To Do With A Box

The ‘101 Things To Do With A Box’ game is a really fun clicker training game to just encourage a love of learning in your dog or other pet. It also is great practice for you in watching for those teachable, reinforceable behaviors from your pet.

No expensive props needed for this. You can use a cardboard box or anything really. I will use a dog as my example for this but if you have a 101 Things To Do In A Box Gameparrot or rabbit you can play this with them.

Simply put the object down on the ground (or a table possibly if you have a bird), have your dog on a leash (or off if he will stay with you) in a room without many distractions and sit or stand a few feet back – then wait.

Watch for any kind of behavior – no matter how small – that relates to the box or object. It can be as simple as a look, sniff, step toward it, pushing it, etc.  When you see it, click (or use a verbal marker like YES) and treat or give another behavior strengthener. At this stage you will be clicking for any purposeful behavior directed toward the box.

What’s wonderful about this is that because you aren’t starting with a specific goal in mind, there really is no wrong answer.

As his confidence builds, you will notice that he will start offering more behaviors.  At some point, you may want to come up with a goal behavior based upon what your dog has offered and shape it into something specific. (Please click here for my post on shaping to learn more.)  A goal could be to have two feet inside the box, flip the box, etc.

Below is  a video of the game from another trainer:

Pet Enrichment – How Do You Exercise Your Pet’s Mind & Body?

What are some way you can exercise your pet’s mind and body?

Exercising your pet's mind and body

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