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New Research on Inhibitory Control in Dogs

A new study looks at a dog's ability to solve problems based on how well the dog can inhibit his or her own behavior.


A study published earlier this year in PLOS One looked at how dogs interact with objects in their environment and if inhibition has any affect on performance behavior. It is known that human infants will learn about their environment through play with objects which was the basis for the idea behind the study.

The research study used 63 Border Collie puppies that all were living in a home with owners as a pet. They chose to focus on one breed in order to eliminate any variables related to breed. The study took three years and 22 of the dogs left the study during that period so that the researchers finished their work with the 41 dogs that were left. The researchers split the dogs into three groups and each group was provided with their own way of experiencing their environment. The first group of dogs were given a set of twelve toys that gave them a wide variety of experiences, including three toys that led to earning a food reward based on size differences among the toys. This group was known as the "enriched" group. The second group, the "manipulative" group, was also given twelve toys but these toys were different from the first group in that they toys were "perceptually opaque" and there was no relevance among the toys related to size. These toys,however, gave the dogs more experience pushing and pulling items, such as mouthing handles, compared to the toys in the enriched group. The third group was the control group, which did not receive any toys from the study but the puppies did receive the "usual" types of toys for dogs their age such as balls, rubber toys, etc.

The toys were given to the first two groups at different intervals and the owners were given sheets to fill out to log their dogs' interaction with the toys in terms of time spent and frequency. The researchers met with the owners and dog at the end of a month with the toys and videotaped the dog playing with the toy to make sure that each dog had "mastered" the toy. At this point the owners were then given the next toy and the process was repeated.

For the control group, the owners were asked to provide information on what toys their dogs were familiar with at 18 months of age to see if the dogs were familiar with any of the toys used in the study with the first two groups. If a dog was familiar with one or more toys, the dog was removed from the study.

All three groups of dogs were given inhibitory control tasks by their owners starting at eight months of age. All three of the tasks were designed to be ones where a dog had to wait to perform an action in order to receive a food treat. The tasks were "wait for a treat" with a treat placed on the ground, the "middle cup task" where a treat is placed under two of three cups on the ground and the dog must push the two correct cups to get the treat, and finally the "leash task" where a dog would be stuck on an obstacle such as a tree because of their leash, and the owner would then call the dog to them. The test was situated so that in order for the dog to get the reward, he or she had to move away from the owner first (i.e. around the tree). The goal of all three tasks was to measure the level of inhibition control the dogs displayed while solving problems.

The results of the study found that there was no significant difference in the performance of the dogs based on the types of toys they were given as puppies. The researchers noted that "it appears that dogs do not transfer knowledge about physical rules from one physical problem-solving task to another, but rather approach each task as a novel problem."

More significantly though, they did find that performance on a task is influenced by the ability of a dog to inhibit his or her behaviors in order to receive a reward. Depending on the task, the dog's inhibitory control could positively, or negatively, affect their performance and they found that the level of inhibitory control a dog had was the best predictor for their ability to tackle problem-solving tasks. The researchers stated that, "Further studies will be needed to elucidate the apparently complex relationship between inhibitory control scores and performance in problem-solving tasks, to determine under which conditions problem-solving performance is facilitated or hindered by good inhibitory control and which aspects of inhibitory control are influencing problem-solving performance under these conditions."

Inhibitory control is a key part of training an effective canine agility partner, both when it's need (i.e. at the start line) and when it's not (moving forward through a course with speed). It will be interesting to see the results of future studies focused on problem solving and inhibition control in dogs for further applications in "real world" dog training.

You can read the full study at Muller CA, Riemer S, Viranyi Z, Huber L, Range F. (2016) Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs. PLOS One. February 10, 2016http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147753.

Photo credit: 20151207_120435 via photopin (license)



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