What’s in Your (Vegetarian) Food?

Here we go again.

It appears that there may be more than what dog owners expect to find in vegetarian dog food.

Hold the Spam, Please: Before all of the  “Dogs are Carnivores (and a pox on your mother if you think differently)” devotees begin posting comments (in all caps ) that dogs should NOT be fed a vegetarian diet in the first place, let me state that this is not what this blog piece is about. So please, don’t even start. The point of this essay is not to argue (again…..) whether or not dogs have an absolute requirement for meat in their diet (here’s a hint: They don’t). Rather, today we examine new information about undeclared ingredients that may be present in dog food and the mounting evidence of regulatory violations within the pet food industry.

In this newest pair of studies, a team of veterinary nutritionists at the University of California tested vegetarian pet foods for label compliance and ingredient content.  I have written about this before, and unfortunately once again, the news isn’t good.


Label Compliance: In the first study, the researchers collected samples of 24 dog and cat food brands that carried a label claim of “vegetarian” (1). The majority of the foods were over-the-counter products purchased at a local pet supply store. Three products were veterinary therapeutic diets. Of the group of products, 19 were formulated for dogs or for dogs and cats, and five were formulated exclusively for cats.  Product labels were examined for their compliance with the Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO) model regulations, which are the basis for most state mandated pet food regulations. Pet food samples were also analyzed for total protein and essential amino acid content. Results: Of the 24 foods, only eight (33 %) were in complete compliance with AAFCO label regulations. This means that 16 brands (66 %) had one or more violations. The most common infractions were the omission of feeding instructions or caloric content, improperly reported guaranteed analysis panels, and mislabeled ingredient statements. Nutrient analysis showed that all but one of the foods met AAFCO’s minimum crude protein requirements. However, six brands had deficient levels of one or more of the essential amino acids. This means that while the total amount of protein that the food contained appeared to be sufficient, essential amino acid requirements, which are more important, were not always met.

Presence of Animal-Based Ingredients: In a second study, the same group of researchers tested 14 brands of vegetarian pet foods (2). They purchased each food on two occasions to obtain samples as duplicates from different manufacturing batches. Six were dry and eight were canned products. Samples were analyzed for the presence of mammalian DNA using an accepted laboratory technique called multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Since all 24 foods were marketed as vegetarian (and in some cases, as vegan), none included animal-based components in their list of ingredients. Results: All six of the dry (extruded) foods that were tested contained DNA from beef, pork or sheep and five of the six contained DNA from multiple animal species. These results were consistent across batches for all 7 products.  Only one of the 8 canned vegetarian foods contained animal DNA (beef) and this finding was not repeated in the second sample. In this study, the researchers also tested for the DNA of dogs, cats, goats, deer, horses, rats, mice and rabbits. DNA from these species was not detected in any of the samples. Similar to earlier studies that have found the DNA of undeclared meats in dog foods, the amount of animal-based ingredients in the foods could not be quantified. The researchers could not speculate whether the labeling violations were a result of deliberate adulteration or unintentional cross-contamination of vegetarian products with meat-containing foods produced at the same facility.


Soap Box Time: The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that all pet foods sold in the United States are safe, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and are truthfully labeled (emphasis mine). Perhaps I am being picky, but labeling a food as vegetarian and then not ensuring that the food indeed lacks the meat of cows, pigs and sheep, seems to qualify as not being truthful. (Some might even call it lying, I suppose). Not only are such egregious errors in violation of both FDA and AAFCO regulations, but they seriously impact the trust that dog owners have in pet food manufacturers. And rightly so.

To date, the majority of pet owners in the US continue to feed dry, extruded food. Of the dry-type vegetarian foods tested in this study, all of them, 100 % were, in fact, not vegetarian at all. This leads one to ponder about other products on the market and whether it is more the norm than the exception for dry dog foods that are sold as vegetarian to be nothing of the sort. While the authors note that this was a small number of products and so do not represent all vegetarian foods, the fact that all of the foods failed their DNA tests is alarming.

What can you do as a dog owner? Contact the manufacturer of your food and ask them how they verify the integrity of their products, specifically, the ingredients that they include in their foods. If they are not forthcoming and transparent with their response, find another producer who is. The good news is that the pressure that research studies such as these place on pet food companies and upon the industry as a whole will hopefully encourage increased transparency and improved regulatory oversight – something that we are apparently in dire need of.

Cited Studies:

  1. Kanakubo K, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Assessment of protein and amino acid concentrations and labeling adequacy of commercial vegetarian diets formulated for dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2015; 247:385-392.
  2. Kanakubo, K, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA. Determination of mammalian deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in commercial vegetarian and vegan diets for dogs and cats. Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 2016;  doi: 10.1111/jpn.12506.


A Walk in the Park (or not)

In my view, one of the many benefits of living with dogs are the walks. All four of my dogs love to hike and run and we spend time together almost every morning at our local forest preserve. The dogs enjoy the exercise and have opportunities to explore, sniff and play, while Mike and I exercise, enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with our family.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Linda Cooper Vinny Ally Walking Dog walks can also be social events. A friend and I meet regularly at different parks to go hiking with our dogs. We enjoy exploring new trails and rotate favorite parks so that the dogs get to experience and enjoy a variety of outdoor areas.  Group walks are also a regular part of AutumnGold’s open floor training nights and are great fun for dogs and their people.

Group walk!

For dog folks, it comes as no surprise that this activity is good for us. There is ample evidence that, as a group, dog owners are more physically active than are non-owners and that acquiring a dog often leads to an increase in activity level. Other studies have found that dog owners report physical and psychosocial benefits of walking with their dogs. They get to know other dog walkers in their area, have increased opportunities to meet new people, and develop a sense of community in their neighborhoods. All proven stuff, and not all that noteworthy, since the social and emotional benefits of dog ownership have been known for many years.

However, here is the paradox. Although American dog owners are more likely to engage in regular walking than are non-owners, the actual proportion of dog owners who walk their dogs appears to be quite low. While more than 45 percent of homes in the US have one or more dogs, less than 3 percent of Americans walk their dog for 30 minutes or more per day and between 40 and 60 percent of dog owners do not walk their dogs at all (1).



Why should you care? Well, because walking briskly for 30 minutes daily can achieve the current recommendations for regular physical activity for adults – a level that is seriously under-achieved by many Americans.  Knowing this, several public health researchers have recently identified dog walking as a viable approach to improving the physical activity of adults in populations that are notably under-exercising.

And, being researchers, they did what researchers do…….

Going to try science


How much dog walking does it take? Elizabeth Richards and a team of researchers at Purdue University were the first  to directly measure the frequency and the intensity of dog walking using activity monitors (think Fit Bit) (2). They outfitted a group of 65 dog owners with accelerometers and collected data over a 7-day period. Owners wore the monitors continuously and recorded the time of day that they started and ended their dog walks. Results: Participants walked their dogs at least one time per day and averaged approximately 30 minutes per walk. During dog walks, almost 80 percent of the exercise was classified as “moderate-vigorous physical activity” (MVPA). About 14 percent of the time was classified as light intensity and 4 percent was sedentary (that must have been the poop stops). The majority of the periods of MVPA occurred in bouts of time that were more than 10 minutes. These distinctions are important because current physical activity guidelines for Americans specify 150 minutes of MVPA per week, achieved in bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time. The authors conclude that: “….dog walking is a type of physical activity that merits greater attention from public health officials and practitioners. Increasing the prevalence of dog walking could help the US attain physical activity objectives….”

Who’s walking (and why)? So, the Purdue study (among others) provides evidence that dog walking can be a great form of exercise (for dog and human). Carri Westgarth and colleagues at the University of Liverpool tackled the next question: What are some of the personal and societal factors that impact an owner’s inclination to walk regularly (or not) with his or her dog? They conducted a systematic review of 31 studies that examined dog ownership and dog walking that had been published over a 22-year period (3). Results: They found that the dedicated dog walkers tend to be owners who possess a strong sense of obligation to their dog’s need for regular exercise and who report that their dog is an important motivator, both for the owner to be active and for spending quality time with their dog. Community factors that are most important include accessibility to public areas that are suitable for walking, that allow off-leash exercise for dogs and that are designed to promote social interactions with other people. Most interesting perhaps is the authors conclusion regarding dog walking areas: “The design of areas intended for dog walking and how they fulfill dog and owner needs may be an important consideration for future interventions. In order to encourage more dog owners to walk their dogs, the recreational areas used for dog walking must be both pleasurable and accessible, as opposed to the common phenomenon of relegating dog access only to the few areas left after other user types have been accommodated.”

From this conclusion, it naturally follows that one may ponder………

What about dog parks? One might ask if the increased number of dog parks in recent years has contributed to dog walking frequency among dog owners. To date only a few studies have examined this relationship. Most recently, Kelly Evenson and several colleagues studied the activity level of dog owners at six different dog parks located in North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania (4). They used a validated measurement tool (The Systematic Observation of Play and Recreation in Communities) to count visitors and monitor activity levels over a one-week period. The researchers also directly interviewed 604 dog park visitors. Results: The primary activity of people who were visiting the dog parks was standing without moving. 79 percent of the recorded activity of dog park visitors was classified as sedentary, 20 percent was walking, and 1 percent was classified as vigorous. The majority of owners (70.4 %) drove their dog to the park, even though many lived less than a mile away. These results were in agreement with two previous studies that collectively examined more than 30 dog parks in multiple states. The authors conclude: “This study……revealed that dog park visitors more often engaged in sedentary behavior or standing without moving than did visitors to other areas of the park……”

Dog Park People


Take Away for Dog Folks

For trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and other dog professionals, the take away from this research is that we should encourage our clients to walk with their dogs, not only for the many benefits that the dogs will enjoy, but to take advantage of the health benefits for themselves. This seems like a no-brainer and is a win-win for dogs and people both. Additionally, we can advocate for more accessible, dog-friendly walking areas in our communities.

By this, I do not mean more dog parks.


Up on my box: In case you think this is going to be a rant from an exercise fanatic who thinks every dog park visitor should get off of her duff and start lapping the park periphery with their Border Collie, well, that is not where this is going at all. (Though, I was tempted).

Rather, here is my issue regarding the evidence from these studies. The Westgarth study makes the point that one way to encourage dog owners to walk more with their dogs (or to walk at all with their dogs) is to provide areas in communities that are specifically designed for dog walking. They address the need for areas that are pleasurable places to walk (i.e. have trails and paths), are accessible, and of course are welcoming to dogs. In other words…….parks. Most dog parks provide none of this stuff. As described in the Evenson study, many dog parks are small areas, usually less than a few acres, and are relegated to crappy bits of land that were either not suitable for any other type of use or are adjacent to larger and more attractive public parks.

Evenson’s paper provides evidence of this. All of the 6 sites that they studied were small (less than 2 acres) and were adjacent to parks that were used for other human recreation purposes. Of the six dog parks, the authors noted that three were developed on land that was located beneath or near power lines, and all six were located adjacent to, across the street from, or almost a mile away from the public park. Given their small sizes, none of these dog parks could provide walking opportunities for people and their dogs.  I know that some people are going to respond that they do not go to the dog park for their own exercise, but rather they go so that their dog can play and romp off-lead and can interact (for good or for bad) with other dogs. I completely understand the benefits of allowing dogs to have off-lead play time and personally love to hike with my own dogs off-lead. However, regardless of my opinion regarding the safety of dog parks, my point in this essay is that the over-emphasis of dog parks in communities, parks that are often small and undesirable snippets of land, can lead to the further segregation of our dogs from the rest of society and certainly will not encourage dog walks and the positive benefits that they have for dogs and owners alike.

So, if you love your dog park and are now in a snit regarding this evidence (and my opinion), let me ask this: If you frequent dog parks with your dog, do you also take him walking with you, on new routes around your neighborhood, or to area walking paths and parks, so that you can walk together and enjoy exercising with your dog? If not, you should. Because dog parks ain’t doin’ it for us.

Nuff said. Off box. Going for a walk with my friend Mary and our dogs.

Cited Studies:

  1. Richards EA, McDonough M, Edwards N, Lyle R, roped PJ. Psychosocial and environmental factors associated with dog walking. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education 2013;51:198-211.
  2. Richards EA, Troped PJ, Lim E. Assessing the intensity of dog walking and impact on overall physical activity: A pilot study using accelerometry.  Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 2014;4:523-528.
  3. Westgarth C, Christley RM, Christian HE. How might we increase physical activity through dog walking? A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014;11:83-97.
  4. Evenson KR, Shay E, Williamson S, Cohen DA. Use of dog parks and the contribution to physical activity for their owners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 2016; March 1; 1-9; DOI 10.1080/02701367.2016.1143909

Full Disclosure: If you have been reading The Science Dog for any period of time, it is not a surprise to learn that I am not a big fan of dog parks. Among trainers, I am certainly not alone in this opinion. That said, while I do not frequent them myself, we do have a few clients at my training school who use them and we make sure that they are aware of the safety risks and that they always carefully supervise their dogs if they go.

Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.



We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.



There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing


Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:


  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?


  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.





The Inhibited Dog (Its not what you think)

We recently started a new Beginner class at AutumnGold, a course designed for dogs who have had little or no previous training. Generally this class is composed of young dogs less than one year of age and a few older dogs who have been recently adopted from a shelter or rescue group. We host a 90-minute orientation on the first evening for owners only. The orientation introduces students to our training principles, provides guidelines for keeping dogs safe and comfortable in a group setting, and prepares owners for what to expect the following week when they arrive with their dogs.

This preparation is absolutely necessary because unbeknownst to the owners, their dogs will be arriving at class ready to party down. New place, other dogs (who are also excited), lots of great doggy smells, toys, and treats (lots of treats). From a dog’s point of view; definitely a time for celebration.

Party Dog


Knowing that the energy level in the training hall will be tipping the high end of the scale on the first night (and probably on several thereafter), we emphasize to students that the one hour or so that they spend at class each week is primarily for them to learn how to train their dogs and for their dogs to have an evening out for some socialization and fun. We stress that because the dogs will be excited and distracted, they generally learn very little during class time. Rather, dogs will do most of their learning at home during daily training sessions, when they are less excited and stimulated (an emotional state that is often technically referred to as “arousal”).

While trainers who teach group classes are anecdotally aware of the impact that excitability can have on a dog’s ability to learn, it is only recently that the specific effects of arousal on dogs’ cognitive ability has been studied by researchers. This work is highly relevant to trainers because understanding more about the contextual nature of how dogs learn can help us to more effectively structure our classes, inform our clients and train our own dogs.

The Science: The story begins with the concept of “inhibitory control“, a term that refers to an individual’s ability to resist the impulse to do something that may be immediately gratifying but is  ultimately harmful or counterproductive. (Though not technically correct, dog trainers often colloquially refer to this as “impulse control”). Examples in dog training abound. A dog who correctly responds to a “leave it” command and turns away from the smelly thing on the ground is demonstrating excellent inhibitory control. So is the dog who maintains her sit/stay while the cat wanders past or waits patiently at the open door prior to going for a walk. While we certainly capitalize on our dog’s ability to use this talent and hone it carefully with training, many exercises that allow our dogs to live with us as well-mannered family members would not be possible if dogs did not possess an innate capacity for inhibitory control when learning new tasks.

Inhibitory control has been studied in many species, including our own. A body of evidence in humans suggests that an individual’s ability to forego instant gratification in lieu of a more nuanced and considered response is relatively stable over time and across contexts. In other words, some people demonstrate high degrees of inhibitory control in many areas of their lives.

Other people, not so much.

Impulse control

The same may be true for dogs. Recent evidence suggests that the type of work that a dog has been selected for can influence the strength of a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control. For example, a successful herding dog has a strong chase drive yet inhibits the final bite portion of predatory drive. Similarly, dogs selected for Service Dog or Search and Rescue work must maintain concentration and continue to work in the face of situations that are highly variable and distracting.

However, personality (temperament) alone does not fully explain a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control.

Not just a personality trait: The expression of inhibitory control can also be influenced by a variety of situational or environmental factors. One of the most important of these is an individual’s current state of emotional arousal (think – the excited beginner dog). The emotional-reactivity hypothesis explains this in terms of arousal’s ability to either support or interfere with learning and performance. It is a bit of a “Three Bears” scenario in which too little arousal is not a good thing (the individual is not interested or is not attending to the task), while neither is too high a state of arousal  (the individual is highly distracted and excitable). The “just right” level exists somewhere in the middle – a moderate state of emotional arousal that best supports an individual’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control and learn new tasks.



It appears that a dog’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control may be influenced by both personality traits (temperament) and the dog’s current state of  emotional arousal. This information is certainly not surprising to anyone who trains dogs. However, the interesting part has to do with new research suggesting that emotional arousal can have different effects upon learning in dogs, depending upon a dog’s innate personality.

The Study:  Emily Bray and her colleagues at the Duke Canine Cognition Center theorized that dogs selected for different types of work might differ in their natural state of emotional arousal and subsequently how changing their arousal state might either enhance or inhibit learning – as expressed as inhibitory control. Specifically, they noted that Labrador Retrievers who have been selected and bred to work as Service Dogs (assistance dogs) undergo intentional breeding selection for low levels of emotional arousal and high trainability. Conversely, the absence of such selective breeding pressures on pet dogs suggests that, as a group, pets would be more emotionally reactive and thus more innately (and easily) aroused by comparison. Given the inverted U-shaped curve for performance, they predicted that assistance dogs, having a more placid temperament by nature, would demonstrate their best inhibitory control when purposefully aroused (to move them from the left tail of the curve to the right a bit), while pet dogs would benefit from a bit of calming experience to move them from the overly aroused tail on the right side of the curve, toward the left. Put another way; they expected pet dogs to be more prone to errors in inhibitory control due to over-arousal and assistance dogs to be more prone to errors caused by under-arousal.

They tested this in a group of 30 pet dogs and a group of 76 Labrador Retrievers who had been bred as potential assistance dogs by Canine Companions for Independence. A standard fence detour task was used to measure problem-solving ability (performance). This tasks requires that dogs demonstrate inhibitory control because while they can see a dog treat behind the apex of a transparent barrier, solving the problem requires the dog to move away from the treat and walk around the end of the barrier in order to access the reward. Each dog was tested in two states of emotional arousal; low and high. In the low arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog to complete the detour task using a calm and quiet voice. In the high arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog using a high-pitched and excited voice. Dogs’ success and ability to show inhibitory control was measured according to the pathway that they attempted to travel, whether or not they tried to grab the treat directly (through the barrier) and the amount of time that it took the dog to succeed.

Fence detour task


Results: Statistically significant differences were found between the pet dogs and the assistance dogs and between low and high emotional arousal states. Here is what the researchers discovered:

  •  Pet dogs are more excitable: As a group, the pet dogs had a higher baseline level of emotional arousal (excitability) when compared with the assistance dogs.  This result was expected and supported the supposition that assistance dogs are selected for emotional stability and calm temperaments while many pet dogs, well, are not.
  • Assistance dogs performed best when emotionally aroused: During the detour tasks, the assistance dogs performed significantly better (i.e. exerted more inhibitory control) when they were aroused emotionally by the excited experimenter, compared with when they were calmed by the quiet experimenter. In other words, excitable encouragement and a high-pitched voice improved these dogs’ ability to problem solve and to show inhibitory control.
  • Pet dogs performed best when calmed: The exact opposite was true for pet dogs. Pet dogs achieved significantly better detour success scores when encouraged in a calming and monotone voice (low emotional arousal) compared with when they were encouraged to succeed using highly arousing encouragement. Therefore, encouraging pet dogs in a highly excitable manner interfered with learning, reduced inhibitory control, and lessened success.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This information should be of great interest to anyone who trains dogs and in particular to those of us who teach group classes – situations that, by definition, lead to high states of emotional arousal in the majority of dogs. While most trainers intuitively know that a highly aroused (excited) dog does not learn efficiently, these data show us that a specific type of problem-solving, inhibitory control, will be impaired in pet dogs who are over-stimulated. Therefore when training an excited dog to maintain a sit/stay, to “leave it” or to “wait” at the door, we will do best to used a calming voice, quiet demeanor, and to manage the dog’s environment (as much as is possible) to ratchet down emotional arousal.

Zuzu and Hannah Sit Stay


Similarly, an older, calm dog who perhaps has “seen it all” and is participating in an advanced training class, may benefit from exercises that enhance, rather than suppress, emotional arousal.  Hence the adage – Active praise for action exercises.

Chip Agility Jumping


The bottom line? Knowing where that sweet spot is on the inverted U-curve for an individual dog in a given situation may have as much to do with who that dog is in terms of his natural state of arousal as it does with manipulating the training environment to increase or decrease that state. An appropriately “inhibited” dog, one whose cognitive faculty of inhibitory control is functioning at its best, may be the dog who is moderately but not excessively emotionally aroused.

Happy Training!

Cited Study: Bray EE, MacLean EL, Hare BA. Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:1317-1329.

The Perfect Dog

Well, not perfect actually, the word that is being thrown around is ideal. In three separate studies, people in the UK, Australia and Italy were polled and asked to describe what they believe to be their ideal dog; the dog with whom they would like to share their love and their life. Kinda like being asked about the ideal man, I guess.

Ideal man 2

The first survey, conducted in the UK, was not scientific, but rather an informal poll conducted by a popular Sunday paper. The Express asked 2000 dog owners about what they considered to be the most desirable physical characteristics in a dog. After collecting the surveys, the editors combined the most popular answers to create this:

Ideal Dog UK


Pretty adorable, even if he is mythical. The ideal British dog, a chimera of breed types, is purportedly of medium size with the coat of an English bulldog, the ears of a King Charles spaniel and the happy, wagging tail of an Irish Setter.  Other attributes were borrowed from Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Beagles. They even specified the type of bark that the perfect pooch should have – must be “mid-range, not high-pitched”. (I guess that rules out Tollers).

Admittedly, this boy is pretty cute.  However, the newspaper survey did not ask about behavior or temperament, which are really the most important features to think about in one’s ideal canine companion. Lucky for us, researchers in Australia and Italy asked exactly these questions (1,2).

What Australians Like: A group of almost 900 Australian citizens were surveyed regarding both the physical and the behavioral characteristics of their perceived ideal dog, using an on-line survey tool. The majority of respondents were current dog owners (72.3 %) and female (79.8 %). The researchers used a statistical technique called principal component analysis (PCA) to identify consistent clusters of responses among available answers. Results: The ideal dog for Australians, as measured by this survey, is medium-sized, short-haired, and “de-sexed” (i.e. neutered/spayed).  Behaviorally, he is house-trained, friendly, good with children, obedient and healthy. Also of importance were reliably responding to “come” (and its corollary, not running away), and showing affection to one’s owner. Oh yeah, and a majority of the respondents said that their perfect dog was not a poop eater.

We Eat Poop


Italians are Going For:  Recently, one of the researchers in the Australian study (PC Bennett) collaborated with scientists in Italy and administered the same survey to a group of 770 Italian citizens. Results: Participant demographics were similar to those of the Australian study and behavior traits of the perceived ideal dog were almost identical. The Italian perfect pooch is house-trained, safe with children, friendly, obedient, healthy, and long-lived. There were a few differences between men and women in the two studies, however.

The Gender Gaps: Australian women valued dogs who are calm, obedient, sociable and non-aggressive, while men in that culture went for dogs who are more energetic, protective and faithful. Italian men were significantly more likely than women to prefer an intact (non-neutered) dog, and Italian women were willing to spend more time with their dog than were men.

Conclusions: The researchers placed emphasis on the fact that most dogs who live as companions today are of breeds or breed-types that were originally developed for a specific purpose and work, such as herding, hunting or protecting. However, very few dogs continue to be used for those functions which may contribute to a disconnect between what people perceive the ideal dog to be and  the reality of how dogs behave and respond to modern-day lifestyles. The results of both studies reported that participants valued a dog’s behavior and health more than they do physical appearance. However, the specific behaviors that were strongly valued suggested unrealistic expectations regarding a dog’s needs, behavior and training.

Unrealistic Expectations


The study’s authors make two recommendations regarding how this information should be used:

  1. Education: The study results show that the general public continues to require education regarding normal and expected behavior of dogs, along with dogs’ needs for training. This education can help to reduce the obvious gap that exists between what is perceived to be an ideal dog and real dogs living as companions.
  2. Selective breeding: Because dogs live primarily as companions in homes today, the authors state that breeders should be focusing their efforts on producing dogs that meet owner expectations regarding behavior as opposed to breeding for physical appearance.

My opinion on this research and on the authors’ recommendations? Yeah, I got one. Big surprise, I know.



The fact that people identified their ideal dog to be one who is house-trained, friendly, obedient and good with kids should hardly come as a surprise. The last time I checked, there are not many people who are seeking a house-soiling, anti-social, disobedient baby killer as their next canine companion. I think we can all agree that most people (probably not just Australians and Italians) value, at least to some degree, the traits that these studies reported.

Where things get a little weird (for me) is in the disconnect between what people identified as their ideal dog and the degree to which (if at all) they perceived their own responsibility in trying to achieve that ideal. For example, in both studies, the majority of respondents stated that their ideal dog was acquired as a puppy. Okey Dokey then…….do the math. How exactly does house-trained, coming called, not running away, good with children, friendly and healthy come about if not through consistent training, exercise, socialization, veterinary visits and care, on the part of the owner? There was more evidence that the participants were not thinking this all the way through:

  • In the Australian study, although the majority of  participants stated that the ideal dog was “obedient”, when asked about the trainability of the ideal dog only 3.6 % (or virtually no one) stated that this was important and approximately one-third believed that “some dogs cannot be trained“. So, I guess the obedient dog who comes when called, does not run away, and oh yeah, abstains from poop-eating just popped out of the womb like that.
  • While the Italian respondents did not share the Australians’ views regarding trainability, they made up for it when asked about exercise and grooming needs.  Owners who self-reported spending little time exercising and grooming their actual dog reported much higher frequencies of these activities with their ideal dog. (Perhaps he is more active and has a denser coat?). About 1 in 10 Italians stated that they never walk their dog at all and slightly less reported that they never groomed their (actual) dog.

Who’s responsible? These discrepancies between ideal and actual dogs prompted the researchers to make their two recommendations, listed above.  I wholeheartedly agree with Number 1. Number 2? Not so much. In fact, I would argue that the two recommendations are at odds with each other. Here is what I mean:

  • Change expectations: If one agrees that the studies’ results reflect unrealistic expectations by owners about dogs and that these need to be corrected via education (and perhaps the occasional slap upside the head), it is illogical to follow this by suggesting that breeders attempt to create dogs who meet these unrealistic expectations.
  • Change breeding focus: Certainly breeders should be selecting for stable and appropriate temperaments within the standard of their breed. And, I think most would agree that certain breeds (or breed-types) are better suited for families with children or elderly couples or an urban-dwelling professional than others. However, this recommendation appears to suggest that breeders stop selecting for behavior traits that tilt away from the (mythical) ideal dog. For example, should Border Collie breeders stop selecting for herding instinct so that little Johnny’s heels don’t get nipped at as he races around the living room? Should Golden Retriever breeders stop selecting for active dogs so that their owners have no obligation to take the dog for walks? Must Beagle breeders stop breeding sniff-focused dogs because we all know that excessive sniffiness promotes wandering off? And, perhaps breeders of long–haired dogs with double coats should cut that nonsense out right now and begin selecting for bald dogs who require no grooming (because picking up that brush a few times a week is just too much work for the busy dog owner).

Sarcasm aside, I would argue that not only are “unrealistic expectations” a problem here, but the term “ideal” itself also needs to go. Just as the ideal man does not exist (yes, sad I know, but true), neither does the ideal dog. Border Collies herd, Golden Retrievers chase things and bring them back, hairy dogs shed (and need to be brushed), some dogs are aloof with strangers, some dogs don’t like kids all that much, some bark a lot, and yes, Virginia, some dogs like to eat poop. Rather than catering to people’s unrealistic beliefs about a mythical dog, let’s instead focus on promoting caring for, respecting, and loving the dogs that we have, non-ideal traits and all.

Chippy Wet and Happy


Cited Studies:

  1. King T, Marston LC, Bennett PC. Describing the ideal Australian companion dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2009; 120:84-93.
  2. Diverio S, Boccini B, Menchetti L, Bennett PC. The Italian perception of the “ideal companion dog”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2016; (in press).






Manners Minder and Me

In the previous essay, “Doggie See, Doggie Do?”  I discussed research showing that dogs may be capable of learning new tasks simply by observing another dog being trained. I mentioned that when I work with my own dogs, I rotate among them by training each dog to perform a down/stay on the pause tables located on the side of our training floor.

Ally Learns High Five on her Platform


In our family, Chippy and Cooper are the most recent in a long line of Case dogs who have learned to “wait their turn” on their platform bed. Admittedly, this is not an easy behavior to teach seeing that my dogs love to train and ultimately view their time on the platform as the “down-stays of doom“.

The approach to training this is pretty simple. I first teach a solid down-stay on the platform with no distractions, and then shape time and distance separately using click/treat. Getting a solid down/stay on the platform is the easy part……the difficulty lies in getting that stay to hold while another dog is out on the floor, having all of the fun. Until recently, I accomplished this by returning to the platform frequently with a click/treat for staying, gradually lengthening the time interval between +R. If the dog frequently jumped off of the platform, I would lower my criteria or put the dog in the x-pen and return to the task at another time.

Enter Alice (aka Alice Bo-Balice), our newest family member.

Ally Coop Chip on Table


With Ally, I decided to change things up a bit and use a remote training device for this task. There are several commercial versions of these available, and I used a “Manners Minder” (now called “Treat & Train”). This device was initially created by the late Dr. Sophia Yin and it functions by providing remote +R in the form of small dry or semi-moist treats. Delivery can be controlled either manually with a handheld control or via an automatic and adjustable reinforcement program. A tone precedes treat delivery and is used as a conditioned reinforcer.

Manners Minder

The Questions: I know that I can teach this behavior to Ally using the same +R approach that I have used in the past with our other dogs. However, I wondered whether training a down/stay on a platform might be more efficient using a remote trainer. As I see it, there could be both benefits and potential disadvantages to these devices:

Potential Advantages:

  •  The remote trainer is a large and physically obvious cue that can be paired with the target area (bed) and which becomes a conditioned reinforcer  (i.e. its presence consistently predicts the arrival of a primary reinforcer in the form of  treats).  This is an advantage in that it quickly signaled to Ally that the bed was “the place to be” whenever the Manners Minder was placed there.
Ally and Treat & Train 2


  • Provides +R remotely that is associated with a particular target (bed) and is disassociated from the trainer (me). [Note: I consider this property both an advantage and a disadvantage – see below].
  • Use of a very precise intermittent reinforcement schedule (I used variable intervals, called the “down stay” setting with the device, but there are several available settings)

Potential disadvantages:

  • Dependency on the presence of the device: I suspect that Ally’s down/stay may, at least initially,  break down when I attempt to remove the device and +R her down/stay in its absence.
  • Device malfunction (this happens relatively frequently, when treats get stuck in the mechanism), leading to poor timing and frustration for the dog.
  • Provides +R that is disassociated from the trainer: One of the best things about training dogs, in my view, is that it enhances communication with our dogs and strengthens the bonds that we have with them. Removing the trainer (me) from this equation therefore removes a number of opportunities for positive interaction and bond-building with Ally.

What does the Science say? To date, there are two published studies of the effectiveness of remote training devices for teaching targeted down/stays with dogs. The first of these was conducted by Dr. Sophia Yin and published in 2008 and the second, using a similar device, was conducted by a group of researchers from Budapest, Hungary in 2016 (1,2). Let’s see what they have reported:

Study 1:  This study was conducted in two phases, each using dogs who had a history of problem behaviors at the door (rushing, barking). In the first phase, six dogs were trained by an experienced dog trainer in a laboratory setting to move to a platform bed and offer a down/stay using the Manners Minder. In the second phase, the same training protocol was used with a group of 15 dogs who were trained in their homes by their owner. A control group of 6 dogs received no training at all. Results: All six dogs who were trained in the laboratory setting successfully learned to maintain a down/stay on a bed for a period of 1 minute, when trained using the remote trainer. In phase 2, although the average amount of training time was longer, all of the owners successfully trained their dogs to complete a down/stay on a targeted bed when visitors came to the door and also reported significant decreases in problem behaviors associated with greeting at the door. (Note: The study protocol did not include removing the device from the targeted bed).

Study 2: The researchers in this study asked whether dissociating the trainer from the +R by using a remote delivery device would influence dogs’ responses to a known command. The study design manipulated how +R was delivered to dogs while owners asked their dogs to “sit” and to “down”. One group of owners directly reinforced their dog with a food treat while the second group reinforced using a remote delivery device that was located next to the dog. After the practice session, the dog’s response to the owner’s commands was measured with the owner either standing next to the dog, 10 feet away, or hidden behind a screen. Results: All of the dog responded well to both types of positive reinforcement. Performance rate during the test phase (no +R given) was similar for the two groups when the handler was standing close. However, when the owner moved away or was out of sight, dogs who had been reinforced with the remote device performed better than dogs who had been reinforced directly by their owner. Performance declined in both groups, but it declined less in the group that had been reinforced with the device. An important note is that while the handler moved away from the dogs, the device did not. Rather, it remained where it had been during training, immediately next to the dog. (This is equivalent to the device remaining on the bed or platform in targeted training).  Therefore, a significant difference between the two groups was that the “opportunity for reinforcement” as represented by the device itself was still very much in evidence to dogs who had been previously trained with it, but the handler was not.  (One is left to wonder again, what would be the results if the device had been moved as well?).

Ally’s Training: So, here is where we are with our little gal’s training. Ally has rapidly learned to offer a down/stay on her pause table when the Manners Minder is present. She can maintain a down/stay for 10 minutes or more when I am training another dog, using a relatively “thin” intermittent and variable interval +R schedule programmed on the device (30 seconds or more). The caveat is that she is successful with this provided the training that I am doing with the other dog is not something that is highly motivating to her, such as retrieving or Nosework. Conversely, when training those activities with Cooper or Chippy, I reduce the schedule to ~ 10 seconds and she can (usually) maintain her stay. Since Ally is just 10 months old, is a very high energy field Golden, and literally lives to retrieve, I consider this to be a great success and would say that at this level, I am very pleased with her progress and with the Manners Minder approach.

Ally and Treat & Train 3


Next Steps: My goal with Ally is the same as with my other dogs – to have a reliable down/stay on the pause table while she is not currently being trained. Because I interchange dogs often during training sessions, I would like to remove the device altogether and have a solid stay that is “Manners Minder-Free“. To accomplish this, I must shift Ally’s focus for her +R away from the device and back to me (the source of click/treat). I am gradually reducing the frequency of +R from the device by increasing its interval, and then stepping in to +R in the breaks.

Reinforcing Ally


The results of the 2016 study predict that Ally may have some reduction in response when I move further away from her. However, it also predicts that keeping the device present will mitigate those mistakes. Therefore the big question continues to be one that the research has not yet addressed: “What will happen if/when I remove the device itself?”

Bye-Bye Manners Minder:  Some trainers who use these devices solve this issue by not having it in the first place – they don’t remove the device. They keep it on the dog’s bed or other targeted area and simply modify the intermittent schedule of +R that it delivers. Okay, well, call me a purist, but I would like to teach Ally to offer a solid down/stay without an enormous cue sitting there like a new-age,  belching, vending machine. Maybe I want my cake and to eat it too….but, like her brothers, I would like Ally to have the opportunity to watch training and get some of those demonstrated observational learning benefits that we recently learned about.

And, here it comes……there is something else that has been niggling at me about this device………



Is it a down/stay or is it an obsession? I have noticed a clear difference between training Ally to stay using the Manners Minder and my experiences training my other dogs using a more traditional click/treat approach. First, before Device Lovers out there start sputtering and spamming, I totally get that this device works. It actually works almost too well. Ally is less than a year old and I have a steady, if rather frenetic, platform stay with her. However, I have to question whether this stay reflects Ally having an understanding of “I maintain a down/stay on my table until it is my turn to train” versus a more insidious reflection of; “I am obsessed with this little machine that occasionally and somewhat unpredictably burps out a treat at me“.

There are definitely signs of the latter. When Ally sees the device, she gets excited and immediately books it for the pause table. When it beeps, she fixates on the tray with an intensity that borders on that of, well, an addict (hello dopamine). The tiny little treat arrives and she is back at it, staring, staring, hoping to hear that next beep.

We all know that look.

Staring At Phone

In addition to these signs of device obsession, Ally also shows varying degrees of frustration. She becomes conflicted between staring at the device (a look I am starting to loathe) and watching one of her brothers engage in something fun on the training floor. Certainly, my dogs all show some frustration (barking, excitement) when they observe another dog retrieving or finding a scent at Nosework. But this is different in some crucial way because Ally rapidly and frantically vacillates between staring at the device and trying to keep up with what is going on around her.

Bottom Line: My opinion and these experiences are not meant to disparage the use of remote food dispensing devices in dog training. I value the rapid response that Ally has shown to using the Manners Minder to train her pause table stay. However, I do worry about the obsessive nature of her response and I question how things will go when we begin to remove the dispenser from the table. I also wonder if what appears to be a down/stay when we describe it using observable behaviors may in actuality be something else – an obsession with a technology and the absence of learning. Whether this intense focus is something that I can segue into a device-free down/stay that is reinforced and maintained with click/treat with Ally remains to be seen. It also remains to be studied or reported in the research, something that I hope will be remedied in the near future!

Happy training and stay tuned! 

Cited Studies:

  1.  Yin S, Fernandez EJ, Pagan S, Richardson SL, Snyder G. Efficacy of a remote-controlled, positive-reinforcement, dog-training system for modifying problem behaviors exhibited when people arrive at the door. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2008; 113:123-138.
  2. Gerencser L, Kosztolanyi A, Delanoeije J, Mikosii A. The effect of reward-handler dissociation on dogs’ obedience performance in different conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:103-110.





Doggie See, Doggie Do?

At my training center, AutumnGold, it is not unusual to enroll students who live with and train more than one dog. A common question that these clients have is how to arrange their training sessions to allow them to train one dog while the other dog “waits his or her turn”. In most of these cases, the student laments that the dog who is not chosen for training becomes upset, does not enjoy being isolated or confined, and may even show some separation stress or frustration with the overall unfairness (in their opinion) of the entire situation.

Or, if they are clever, as my four dogs appear to be, they attempt to all participate in the training session simultaneously.

Ally, Cooper, Chip, Vinny on Pause Table


Over the years, my personal solution to this problem has been to teach each of our dogs to stay on a pause table located off of the training floor while they await their turn to train. Although it can be challenging to teach (more about this in my next blog), I like this arrangement because it is convenient and saves me from having to return to the house multiple times to get a different dog. It is also fun for the dogs because they generally receive more training time and also get to play together after the session.

Chip Cooper Pause Tables


And it appears that there may be additional benefits for the dogs.  A recent research paper provides evidence for something that I anecdotally have observed with  my own dogs and suspect that other trainers have also experienced – that dogs seem to have some ability to learn new tasks by observing other dogs.  This type of learning is called social learning (or observational learning) and it has been studied in a variety of species and contexts. However, only recently has it been studied with dogs in a training environment.

Ally learning wave dogs pause table


Social Learning: It is generally accepted that social learning plays an important role in the lives of dogs. Observing the behavior of others helps dogs to learn about their environment, modifies their responses to new situations, and may even teach them new behaviors and solutions to problems.  Within the broad category of social learning, several sub-classifications exist and these presumably reflect different degrees of cognitive involvement. Although there is debate among social scientists about definitons, the types include: social facilitation, local/stimulus enhancement, response facilitation, social emulation and imitation (1). Much of the debate among those who study social learning revolves around what information the dog is actually using and how that information is processed cognitively or consciously to change behavior. For the purposes of this essay, we are most interested in how social learning (of any type) might occur between dogs in training situations.

Mimicry Cooper and Ally


Interestingly, much of the research with social learning in dogs has focused on their ability to learn by observing human demonstrators. Common study paradigms ask dogs to either solve a food acquisition puzzle or to maneuver around a fence after having watched a person perform the correct solution. Dogs have been shown to be quite successful at these tasks, although factors such as the identity of the demonstrator, the dog’s living situation, prior training experience and age can influence success rates.

Studies that have examined the dog’s ability to learn socially from other dogs are fewer in number. There is evidence that, just as with human demonstrators, dogs will show improved performance and problem-solving ability after watching a demonstrator dog successfully complete a detour or puzzle task. An earlier study reported that puppies who were allowed to observe their mother working at a scent detection task went on to become more successful as scent dogs in adult life.

Can Dogs Learn a Trained Task from Another Dog? Most recently, researchers asked whether on not learning would be enhanced in dogs who observed another dog who had been trained to perform a novel behavior (2). This study and its results have relevance to those of us who train multiple dogs and perhaps even for group training classes.

The Study: The objective of the study was to determine if learning a new task (jumping onto a trunk or small slide) was enhanced when dogs had the opportunity to observe another dog performing the exercise prior to being trained themselves.  A group of 33 adult Labrador Retrievers was tested. All of the dogs were enrolled in the training program at the Italian School of Water Rescue, lived in homes with their owners, and had been pre-screened to ensure that the exercises used in the study were novel to them. The dogs were divided into two groups; an observer group and a control group. Observer dogs sat next to their owners and watched another handler and his trained demonstrator dog approach the obstacle (trunk or slide). The demonstrator dog then jumped up and sat on the obstacle. The exercise was demonstrated twice and then the observer dog and handler approached the obstacle and the handler attempted to train the dog to perform the exercise. The control group of dogs were held on lead in the same position but did not have the opportunity to watch the demonstrator dog before being trained for the new task. Each dog’s success or failure to demonstrate the new behavior was recorded.

Results: The dogs who had the opportunity to observe a demonstrator dog perform the new exercises were significantly more likely to succeed at the same task when asked to perform it. Specifically, 62.5 % of the observer dogs were successful compared with 23.5 % of the control dogs. Neither a dog’s sex nor his/her level of prior training experience influenced the probability that they would perform the new task successfully. Age was somewhat important, as older dogs tended to be more successful than younger dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks

On one level, these results are not surprising. Anecdotes abound among dog folks regarding our dogs’ ability to learn from one another through observation. Ask anyone who lives with more than one dog and they will relate numerous examples of their dogs sharing information (and not always in a good way). For as long as I can remember our dogs have learned to “wait” at the door and in the car by watching each other. While I do train this command, our young dogs learn to wait very rapidly when they notice that the entire family is frozen in its tracks. Similarly, because we hike a lot with our dogs, one dog finding something yummy or smelly on the trail is quickly observed and acted upon by the others. Still, these examples may arguably fall relatively low on the social learning scale as they probably reflect social facilitation or simple stimulus enhancement.

What is exciting about the recent results is that they demonstrate, albeit with a small number of dogs, that a dog who has the opportunity to observe another dog who is performing a trained exercise (and by extension, perhaps the training of that exercise itself?) can benefit from that observation. The researchers provide several possible explanations for their positive results, one of which is that dogs may show enhanced learning when they are highly motivated to engage in the task. For example, teaching something that is target-oriented, such as jumping up onto an obstacle or retrieving a toy, may be more successful than training a static exercise such as a down stay. This difference is reflected in the results of a previous study reporting that untrained dogs did not perform well in learning a positional behavior (lying down on command) after watching a trained dog perform it (3). While dogs are often naturally interested in examining and engaging with new objects, most are decidedly less motivated to spontaneously offer a static behavior such as a sit/stay or down/stay.

These results make me consider the relative ease with which both Ally and Cooper have learned platform positions, retrieving tricks such as “put your toys in a basket” and go-outs to a target. Both regularly watch and get excited as the other is being trained in these behaviors. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, I rarely see that level of interest or excitement when I am training sit/stays and down/stays). While I have no control group for my own anecdotal experiences, these results suggest to me that having all of my dogs present and attending during a training session may have benefits that go beyond convenience. Watching the other dogs learn new things may help my observing dogs to learn more rapidly, at least in those exercises that interest and engage them.

And, for my clients who are attempting to train two dogs at the same time, I will now recommend that, if possible, they find a way that the dogs are able to observe each training session with the other dog. They may be very pleasantly surprised at the results.  Happy training everyone!


Cooper and Alice Standing Platforms


Cited References:

  1. Kubinyi E, Pongracz P, Miklosi A. Dog as a model for studying conspecific and heterospecific social learning. Journal of Veterinary Behaivor 2009; 4:31-41.
  2. Scandurra A, Mongillo P, Marinelli L, Aria M, D’Aniello B. Conspecific observational learning by adult dogs in a training context. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2016; 174:116-120.
  3. Tennie C, Glabsch E, Tempelmann S, Brauer J, Kaminski J, Call J. Dogs, Canis familiaris, fail to copy intransitive actions in third-party contextual imitation tasks. Animal Behavior 2009; 77:1491-1499.