Problem-solving Persistence: Does Human Encouragement Help?

Investigators compared search dogs with pet dogs to determine how human encouragement helps dogs solve problems.
Amanda Carrozza
Published: August 08, 2018
Search and rescue dogs spend a large portion of their early lives training to work in difficult and distracting scenarios, and they prove their skills time and time again. In a new study, investigators from Oregon State University (OSU) set out to determine whether some of the dedication working dogs exhibit is inherent. Would pet dogs display similar tenacity if faced with a problem-solving task? And more importantly, would human encouragement influence the behavior of dogs from either group?

The study, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, compared 28 search and rescue dogs with 31 pet dogs; both groups were comprised of various breeds. To compare how the dogs approached problem solving, each was presented with a puzzle box and had to figure out how to open within 2 minutes. The puzzle was given to the dogs under 3 different conditions: an alone condition, in which the dog was by itself; a neutral condition, in which a human was present but did not speak; and an encouragement condition, in which the human praised and encouraged the dog through the task.

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For the neutral and alone conditions, the 2 groups of dogs performed similarly, with neither group having much success opening the box. Likewise, there were no notable differences between groups with regard to persistence. Pet dogs, however, did become distracted by the presence of a human in the room and viewed encouragement as an invitation to play rather than instruction on how to complete the task at hand.

Contrary to what the investigators predicted, search dogs—which are traditionally trained to work independently from their owners—were most successful at opening the box in the encouragement condition (n = 9). In the same condition, only 2 pet dogs were able to open the box.  

“Because search and rescue dogs are trained to work independently, we expected that they would out-perform pet dogs on this independent task and that wasn't the case,” Lauren Brubaker, a doctoral student in OSU's Human-Animal Interaction Lab and lead author, said. “This suggests that the behavior of the owner, including their expectation of their dog and how they engage with their dog on a day-to-day basis, may influence the dog during a problem-solving task.”

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