Do you live with a Yogi Bear dog? You know what I mean – one of those smarter than the average bear dogs? I am quite certain that I live with several.
For example, Chippy my Toller, excels at retrieving rings and carefully placing them over a pylon, riding a skateboard (sometimes recklessly, in my opinion), and playing a game of his own invention called Agility Ring-Toss. Our ever resourceful Brittany, Vinny, demonstrates his version of canine genius by finding a hidden object after seeing it for less than a second, and our youngster, Cooper, shows himself to be a Puppy Einstein each time that he learns a new trick, typically before I have a chance to complete my prescribed schedule of shaping. And Cadie, now 13-years-young, demonstrated her canine intellect by learning not only to fake a hurt paw, but to limp pathetically on three legs and fall to the ground in a full-blown melodramatic swoon when she decided to ad lib her own version of this popular trick.
All of their antics – Clicker trained.
Clicker training is a popular and by all accounts highly successful training technique that requires the use of positive reinforcement, the “treat” part of click-treat. Many trainers, myself included, are convinced that focusing on positive reinforcement during training promotes a “love of learning” in our dogs. And, it follows, these dogs develop into individuals who are “smarter than the average bear”.
However, as we all know, anecdotal experiences (even lots of them) do not add up to scientific evidence. So, is there evidence that supports the belief that training, and specifically training that is reward-based, leads to smarter dogs? A bit, it seems. Let’s look at two recent studies:
Study 1: The first was conducted by Sarah Marshall-Pescini and her colleagues at the University of Milan (1). They examined the success of two groups of dogs presented with a novel problem-solving task. The first group consisted of pet dogs who had either no previous training at all or had completed a single basic obedience class early in life (untrained dogs; n = 54). The second group included dog who were extensively trained in a variety of dog sports such as agility, search and rescue, retrieving sports or schutzhund (trained dogs; n = 56). All of the dogs in the trained group had been trained using positive reinforcement (food treats and/or a toy as the reinforcer). During the study, each dog was individually tested for his/her ability to solve a box-opening task. A plastic container holding a dog treat could be opened either by hitting a paw pad or using a nose to lift the lid. Other than first watching their owner open the box to show them the treat inside, the dogs received no aid during the problem-solving session. The experimenters measured several variables including each dog’s success/failure, time needed to open the box, and behaviors while working out the problem.
Study 1 Results: Significantly more dogs in the trained group were successful at opening the box than dogs in the untrained group (34 vs 16, P = 0.0002). Trained dogs also spent more time interacting with the apparatus and less time orienting to their owners when attempting to solve the problem. Interestingly, the type of training that the dogs had experienced had no effect upon their ability to solve the task. In other words, agility, schutzhund, and SAR dogs were all equally proficient at solving a unique problem.
Study 2: The second study was conducted by Nicola Rooney and her colleagues at the University of Bristol in the UK (2). Fifty-three dog owners first completed a detailed survey that asked a series of questions regarding their preferred method of dog training. Following completion of the survey, each owner was videotaped in their home while they interacted with their dog and while training their dog to learn a new command. The experimenters measured degree of positive reinforcement (treats, praise, petting) versus negative reinforcement (harsh voice, collar corrections, swatting/hitting) that owners preferred and analyzed the dogs’ videotaped behavior.
Study 2 Results: This study found that dogs owned by people who reported using a higher proportion of punishment during training were less likely to interact with unfamiliar people visiting the home and were significantly less playful when compared with the dogs of owners who reported to train using primarily positive methods. In addition, the dogs of owners who stated that they used reward-based training and who were classified via survey results as being highly patient with their dogs tended to perform better in a novel training task. However, this difference was not statistically significant.
Take away for dog folks: Each of these two studies have strengths and weaknesses, and together provide a nice bit of helpful information to trainers and dog folks. The first study is a rock star in terms of dog numbers; over 100 dogs studied in an applied dog study is a difficult and time-consuming feat – Bravo to the researchers for this! And, their results tell us that indeed, dogs who are regularly trained are more likely to engage in a novel problem-solving task, to work independently of their owner, and to be successful at solving the task. In other words, dogs who are trained regularly seem to have “learned to learn”! What this study’s results cannot tell us, however, is whether or not there is any difference in the performance of dogs who are trained using primarily positive reinforcement and those who are trained using more coercive methods. This limitation occurs because the latter type of training methods were not examined in this study.
The second study, on the other hand, did compare dogs who were trained using primarily positive methods with those who were trained using more aversive (correction-based) methods. However, limitations of this study are that it utilized a self-reporting survey and did not measure dogs’ problem-solving abilities.
Direct Measurement of Problem Solving VS. Survey/observation Study
Results of the second study suggests that the use of coercive, punishment-based training methods with dogs may negatively influence a dog’s behavior with other people and may inhibit rather than support learning. It also suggests that using methods that emphasize positive reinforcement may lead to more confident and playful dogs – something that most of us certainly desire. IMHO, it would be nice to see a study of the first type that includes a group of dogs who were trained using more correction-based methods so that problem-solving ability can be directly measured in dogs that are trained using the two different philosophies. Any behavior students out there who want to give this one a go?
‘Til Next Time – Happy Training & Enjoy Your Own Yogi Bear Dog!
1. Pescini-Marshall S, Valsecchi P, Petak I, et al. Does training make you smarter? The effect of training on dogs’ performance (Canis familiaris) in a problem solving task. Behavioural Processes 2008; 78:449-454
2. Rooney NJ, Cowan S. Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2011; 132:169-177.