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.

 

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Is Your Dog REALLY A Guilty Dog?

Time and time again I see pictures and videos posted online of the guilty dog who knows he did something really bad. That naughty boy’s face quickly goes viral, probably because so many dog owners can relate.

guilty dogAnd every time I see one of those images, it reminds me that I want to write about it to give people a better understanding but I just had not gotten around to it….until now.

What I know about behavior

I’ve been learning about and practicing behavior science and applied behavior analysis for more than 13 years after Dr. Susan Friedman first introduced me to it and sparked my passion for wanting to know more.

Behavior, Susan has taught me, is simply an animal’s tool to get a consequence. Behavior helps an animal to get something of value (a reinforcing consequence) or to move away from something aversive (a punishing consequence). Behavior is measurable and observable. It is something the animal ‘does’ NOT something the animal ‘is’. (Chewing an old shoe is a behavior. Being a naughty dog is NOT a behavior but a label or construct.)

Operant learning occurs when a relationship is formed between that behavior and its consequence. The behavior either continues and becomes stronger because it gets the animal a consequence of value, or the behavior decreases because its consequence is aversive to the animal. Thorndike gave the name for this relationship the law of effect, meaning the behavior’s strength that you see today is because of the consequences of that behavior in the past.

Important to understanding how learning occurs are two terms: Contiguity and Contingency. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while Contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.

This is why clickers or verbal markers like ‘yes’ are so effective because they are immediate feedback to the animal that the very specific behavior occurring when the click is made is what is getting him the consequence of something valuable.

Important to the understanding of the ‘guilty’ look on your dog’s face after much time has passed between the ‘naughty’ behavior and the time when you walked in is that the two C’s of behavior apply to both positive AND negative consequences.

I do not advocate for punishment because there are so many negative ramifications of it. Among them: punishment only serves to stop the behavior – not to teach what behavior you’d like you puppy to do instead; punishment actually is two aversives – the onset of a punishing stimulus and the removal of the reinforcer that has maintained the behavior; punishment does not teach the caregiver how to teach new skills but it does serve to reinforce the caregiver increasing the likelihood that the teacher will use negative strategies in the future. Additionally, by using punishing strategies you are teaching your dog to associate negative consequences with being near you. (Please see my post on punishment here.)

However, I need to point out that even for punishment to work, it would need to occur immediately after the behavior in order for the animal to build that association in his mind that *if* I do this, *then* this happens.

What do I know about dogs?

Well, among what I know is that they have a need to be physically and mentally stimulated. Some more than others. And chewing on a smelly shoe can get a puppy or dog numerous positive consequences – among them sensory and mental stimulation.

So, by the time you walk in much later, is your dog really showing submissive body language because he knows he did something ‘bad’ (from your perspective) or because he associates you with punishing him?

In the case of Denver the Guilty Dog, the Youtube video that went viral, is the dog really feeling ‘guilty’ or is he licking his lips, moving his head away from the package and blinking his eyes (calming signals in dog body language that they use to avoid conflict) because his owner is holding a plastic bag too close for comfort? Is Denver holding his head down and then showing his teeth because he is really guilty or he is trying to avoid conflict?

Research tells all

Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., a term assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know did some research into this very subject and wrote about it in Psychology Today.

In her research, owners confronted guilty and innocent dogs of eating a forbidden treat. She found one clear result: “The ‘look’ happened most when dogs saw scolding, questioning or angry owners, whether the dog was guilty or not. Later work replicated this finding. And separate research has found that owners are right only 50 percent of the time — the equivalent of random chance — when asked to guess, by looking at their dogs, if the dogs had transgressed in their absence” (She wrote in the Washington Post).

In her Psychology Today article, Dr. Horowitz shared, “What this shows is that the guilty look, our index for assuming a dog knows when he’s done something wrong, is actually prompted most as a response to the behavior of the human. Whether actually scolding a dog–using a deep, chastising tone of voice, approaching with a wagging finger and an angry face–or in preparation to scolding, the owners’ behavior is recognizable to dogs. To avoid being punished, they act submissively, non-threateningly, as they might with a larger, more forceful playmate.”

The responsibility is on us

When we take animals into our homes, we need to recognize their needs for mental and physical exercise. We can either provide them with appropriate choices for getting their needs met or we need to understand that they will find their own choices…and we may not be happy with what they come up with.

The really great thing here is that not only will we be setting our pets up for success by giving them good choices, we will be strengthening our relationship with our pets as they come to associate us as the giver of those good things.

I don’t know about you but I would much rather have my dog greet me with a wagging tail than with his tail between his legs, his head lowered, and his ears plastered back.

Please see my video below on providing choices for my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby.

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