Dogs Are Better At Solving Problems When Encouraged By Their Owners

Search and rescue dogs, in particular, are better at solving problems when encouraged by their owner. Stoyan Yotov/Shutterstock

When faced with a challenge, does your dog ever look to you for reassurance, or even help? Researchers from Oregon State University have investigated how an owner’s encouragement affects their dog’s performance at a problem-solving task, publishing their findings in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The study's fluffy participants included 31 pets and 28 search and rescue dogs, encompassing 19 and 15 different breeds respectively. They were set a challenge – open a Tupperware box to reach a tasty sausage snack inside. The box had a rope attached to it so could be opened by pulling on the rope, removing the lid, or simply munching through the plastic.

The dogs were given two minutes to complete their task. First, they had to attempt it with their owner standing neutrally nearby and then without their owner present at all, or vice versa. They didn't do very well.

Only three of the 31 pets solved the task in the neutral human condition, while only two of the 28 search and rescue dogs did. Meanwhile, two pets managed alone but no search and rescue dogs did.

The dogs that had failed to open the container then moved to the next part of the study – get to the sausage but this time with a bit of encouragement.

The owners could encourage their dogs how they saw fit but weren’t allowed to touch the animals or the container. Pet dogs were still pretty useless, with only two out of 27 (7.41 percent) achieving success. However, the search and rescue dogs upped their game. Nine out of 26 (34.6 percent) members of this group succeeded.   

Just a floof doing his best. 

Adorably, the pet dogs tended to treat the puzzle box more like a toy when encouraged by their owners, whereas the more highly skilled search and rescue dogs treated it as a mission to complete.

“Instead of engaging in goal directed behavior, they act as if their owner was encouraging them to play,” said study author Monique Udell. The pet dogs also gazed at their owners more.

The findings are interesting because, as the researchers point out, search and rescue dogs are trained to work very independently when on their difficult missions to save people’s lives. Therefore, it was assumed these dogs would work very well alone, but they didn’t. Perhaps this is because the animals are highly trained and used to receiving instructions from their owners.

“Their owners may be more effective at communicating about the task at hand,” explained Udell. “Or maybe there is something inherently different about dogs that are selected for search and rescue that makes them more apt to solve the problem. More research is needed to know for sure.”

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