October 29, 2020 5 min read

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Today, one of the fastest and most popular dog sports is agility. With teamwork between handler and dog being most important, puppy training for agility makes a lot of sense. While your dog is learning how to use agility obstacles and follow directions, you’ll probably wonder if your dog may be persistent enough for agility training. That said, preparing your pup for actual agility trials with exercises earlier on in life will benefit him greatly later on when he competes.

Reward-Based Training Methods

Safety and fun are key to every  agility dogs performance. The new study by Dr. Monique Udell, Oregon State University & co-founder of  Canine Cognition & Behavior Lab wanted to see how a dog’s life experiences affected persistence. With reward-based training methods raising performance standards in all dogs, the new study questions if a dog’s life experiences affect his or her persistence during training.

That said, with no dog being too old to train for basic obedience, how focused and persistent are dogs on the task during agility training? All dogs are unique, so with that in mind, let’s explore this new research paper discussing how a dog’s life experiences may affect his or her persistence during training or when competing.

Persistence in Object Manipulation

Dr. Udell and her team wanted to test persistence in object manipulation when given a new object that contained food that could not be accessed and to see how closely this is linked to problem-solving success in dogs. In this study, the research team targeted three dog populations with very diverse life experiences. These included free-ranging dogs in Morocco, pet dogs in Vienna, and captive pack living dogs at the  Wolf Science Center. (WSC)

Additionally, Udell mentions that “pet dogs and captive dogs (WSC) were more manipulative and persistent than free-ranging dogs. The low persistence of free ranging-dogs is unlikely the effect of a lack of exposure to objects since they are confronted with many human artifacts in their environment daily.

Higher Persistence in Domesticated Dogs

Instead, we suggest that the higher persistence of captive dogs and pet dogs in comparison to free-ranging dogs might be due to their increased experience of human-mediated object interaction. This provides subjects with a socially guided experience in manipulating and interacting with objects increasing their motivation to engage in such tasks,” via Plos One.

Problem Solving Performance in Dogs as a Cognitive Trait

The study describes problem-solving performance in dogs as a cognitive trait that is an accepted measure of general cognitive ability in dogs. It also affects a dog’s fitness. Previous studies that have looked into factors that influence a dog’s problem-solving performance have focused on intra-specific and inter-specific comparisons. These studies have concluded that there is a combination of factors that will affect a dog’s performance. These may include the following:

  • Innovation neophobia (fear of new things)
  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Persistence or task-directed motivation
  • Personality
  • Social rank
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Individual life experiences

In  past studies, captive dogs (pet dogs) have been found to outperform wild dogs with problem-solving tasks. This is thought to stem from a more enriched and safer environment. Pet dogs would also have more opportunities to become used to interacting with populated environments and would be less scared when faced with new things. Also, human interactions allow for dogs to explore more opportunities that would enhance their problem-solving performance skills.

The Study

The study wanted to research the varying differences in problem –solving skills in captive or pet dogs, and in free-ranging, or wild dogs. The study used an object that contained food that could not be accessed. This was done in the dog’s home environment where he was relaxed and under no stress to perform. Dr. Udell says that they “investigated whether persistence is affected by the subject’s experience and hypothesized that the experience interacting with humans and their artifacts would increase subjects’ persistence.”

“All subjects were tested with a big rigid plastic ball that they had never encountered before (however, all dogs might have been exposed to ball-like objects before). 

Additionally, as neophobia (defined as 'the avoidance of an object solely because it has never been experienced and is dissimilar from what has been experienced in the individual's past has often been shown to negatively correlate with persistence, we also tested both free-ranging dogs and pet dogs with a plastic bottle–a familiar object that all subjects have considerable experience with. This allowed us to assess the potentially different effects of neophobia on persistence in the two dog populations. All tests were performed in the absence of conspecifics and humans.”

Persistence is Influenced by Different Life Experiences

Dr. Udell and her team predicted that persistence is influenced by different life experiences with humans as has been observed in other animal species, WSC dogs and pet dogs would naturally be more persistent with the ball than the free-ranging dogs would be. Also, because pet dogs are always in close proximity to humans, they would be more persistent with the ball than the free-ranging dogs from WSC.

The study adds that “Finally since the population of free-ranging dogs that we tested has been observed to live around a wide variety of human artifacts, we expected neither free-ranging dogs nor pets to act differently when tested with the ball compared to the plastic bottle.”

What The Study Proves

Thestudy observed that “free-ranging dogs were less persistent than pet dogs and pack dogs living in enclosures. This is in contrast with the common thinking that pet dogs are inhibited to interact with objects and/or do not need to do it because they are used receiving help from a human partner. Although further studies are necessary to deepen our understanding of the reason underlying these differences, we suggest that a possible explanation for this finding is the different human-mediated object interaction between groups.

Humans may provide subjects with a socially guided experience in manipulating and interacting with objects, which could increase their motivation to engage in such tasks (even in their absence). Thus, pet dogs as well as pack-living captive dogs, both with ample experience of human-mediated object interaction, spent significantly longer manipulating the object than free-ranging dogs. This is in line with observations in other species when comparing captive and wild subjects.”

This study backs up past studies that compared trained and untrained dogs in problem-solving tasks. These dogs had the same food motivation andhealth conditions with the same training disciplines like agility and search and rescue, and the researchers found these dogs to be more persistent, and to also have higher-problem-solving success than untrained dogs.

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