New Study Finds Dogs Want to Earn Their Treats

September 29, 2014

dogs earn nickBy Linda Cole

Satisfaction is that good feeling you get after finding a solution to a difficult problem. We all have “eureka moments” when all of the pieces fall into place, allowing us to finally figure something out. According to new research, dogs also have eureka moments. Your dog’s favorite treat is the “paycheck” that canines prize – along with the opportunity to earn it. The treat is the motivating factor, but working for it is just as important to canines. It seems that humans are not the only species to get satisfaction and pleasure from completing a challenging task.

Researchers in Sweden tested 12 Beagles paired up into six groups. Six different pieces of equipment were introduced to the dogs. When used correctly, each piece made a distinctive noise to indicate when the task was completed. An example of equipment used included playing a key on a toy piano, pressing a paddle lever that rang a bell, and pushing a plastic box off a stack that made a noise when it hit the floor. In each pair of dogs, one was an experimental dog and the other one was a control dog.

After all 12 dogs were trained, they were taken to a testing area where the equipment was set up. At the entrance was a holding area where each dog waited to perform their specific task. An assistant led him to the starting arena, then turned their back and gave no interaction or instructions to the dog.

Once inside the testing area there was a gate to a ramp that led to three different rewards – a treat, a human who would pet them, and another dog. At the appropriate time, a hidden researcher opened the gate. The Beagle in the role of experimental dog gained access to the ramp only after successfully completing the three tasks he had been trained to do. He was rewarded with a treat, the petting, or contact with the dog.

dogs earn jamie beverly The Beagle in the role of control dog got a reward no matter how he manipulated the equipment he had been trained on. The opening of his gate was matched with the time it took his partner, the experimental dog, to finish his tasks. Both dogs spent the same amount of time in the testing area and received the same reward. The only difference was whether or not the gate opened after successful completion of the tasks. Each pair was tested multiple times and they took turns being the control or experimental dog.

The researchers found that when the dog was in the experimental role he was eager to enter the starting arena and most of the time entered the room ahead of the person assisting them. On each run he wagged his tail with excitement and was more active as he moved through his assigned tasks. Not only did the experimental dogs appear happier after completing their tasks, they were most excited and left the test area faster when they were rewarded with a treat or contact with another dog. However, it was the treat reward both groups preferred over the other two.

When the reward was a petting by a human the dog knew, there was no difference between the two groups. According to the researchers, the dogs understood they were the ones who were controlling access to a reward and reacted emotionally when presented with opportunities to problem solve.

When in the role of control dog, they weren’t as excited about going into the starting arena after the first several test runs. Throughout the course of the testing, the control dogs were more reluctant to enter the room and needed to be encouraged by an assistant. There was no excitement when receiving a reward, they were less active while in the starting arena and entered the ramp faster than the dogs in the experimental group.
dogs want oleg
The control dogs chewed on testing equipment and showed signs of frustration and stress due to unpredictability and lack of control over when they received their reward. Interestingly, by the end of the study, some of the Beagles had taught themselves how to manipulate equipment they hadn’t been trained on in an effort to open the gate.

The research suggests that dogs learned things they needed to know to survive through the course of evolution. And learning is something they enjoy doing. It gives them satisfaction and pleasure to use their mind to work through a challenging problem. When a dog has to make decisions and use his mind to solve a problem, it’s important to his emotional experiences; this boosts his ability to learn and remember, as well as his continued well-being.

So it seems that our canine friends are happiest when they have to earn their CANIDAE dog treats rather than getting a freebie for doing nothing. That doesn’t surprise me, what about you?

Top photo by nick@/Flickr
Middle photo by Jamie Beverly/Flickr
Bottom photo by oleg./Flickr

Read more articles by Linda Cole

Share this: