Researchers are now questioning whether dogs genuinely enjoy the practice of problem solving, or is it all because of the incentive to receive a tasty treat. Could it possibly be a combination of both?
Now a new study  performed at the University of Agriculture Sciences in Sweden was designed to test whether or not dogs love solving problems to earn their rewards. Researchers wanted to see if it was the reward itself, or the fun of solving the problem that made the dogs happy.
Apparently, the idea for this study came from previous research results obtained on cattle . Scientists have then found that cattle animals who completed a task to earn a reward were much happier than cattle that were just simply given the reward with no expectations. Donald Broom, professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University, called it “the Eureka moment.”
To test the same theory on canines, research led by Ragen McGowan studied beagles.
Method of the study
The team matched beagles up into 6 pairs (12 beagles total). Dogs took turns as the experiment was broken down into two parts: each dog was first going as a control canine, and then as an experimental canine for the second half.
Fidos were pre-trained before the study using the following equipment.
– Dog piano that would play a note when pressed
– Plastic box that could be pushed off a platform and would make a loud noise
– Paddle lever that would ring a bell
After the objects were interacted with and manipulated correctly, they would each make a distinct noise, thus letting the dog know the task was complete.
The experiment was performed in a room that had a makeshift arena set up with different types of equipment in it. There was a gate that led to a runway at the end of which there was a reward waiting. An assistant would lead a dog into the arena and then turn their back and stop interacting with the dog completely. For the first “experimental” half, if dogs did what they had been trained to do, the gate would open and they would be able to reach the treat.
During the “control” part, it didn’t matter what the control dog did in the arena; the gate would only open after the control dog spent exactly the same amount of time in the arena that the experimental dog did. Once the time was up, the gate would open and the control dog would receive the exact same reward as the experimental dog.
The only difference between the “experimental” and “control” conditions was whether the manipulation of the equipment by a dog’s conscious action would open the gate or not.
Results of the study
Researchers found that the experimental dogs were excited to enter the arena; often, they would run ahead of the assistants.
Control dogs were only eager to go in the first couple of times and then they became reluctant to go in. By the end of the experiment, control dogs would have to be coaxed into the arena because they would not enter on their own.
Other signs by which researchers judged control dogs “unhappiness” compared to experimental dogs’ excitement was that control dogs were less active in the arena, sometimes they would bite or chew the equipment, and they were quicker to enter the runway and escape once the gate opened. Such behavior was not observed in experimental dogs, and it was also noticed that these dogs wagged their tails more than the control ones.
This research suggests that dogs were happier when they had to complete a task or do some problem solving in order to earn a reward rather than if they were just given the reward. It also shows that dogs that were able to control their environment were more excited about it than those dogs that couldn’t.
This further reinforces the claims from an older 2003 study on cattle , which Prof. Donal Broom has later summarized:
“[Intelligent animals] not only get excited about, for instance, the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves control the delivery of a reward.”
In this new study with canines, we can observe that much like humans, dogs are also happier when circumstances are under their control.
- McGowan RT et al. Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Anim Cogn. 2014 May;17(3):577-87. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688
- *Citation within the link: Cows Hold Grudges, Say Scientists, by Jonathan Leake at The Australian, February 28, 2005. [link (broken; notified)]
- Kristin Hagen et al. Emotional Reactions to Learning in Cattle, Applied Animal Behavior Science, Vol. 85, ed. doi: 0.1016/j.applanim.2003.11.007