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How do we make our dogs happy?

Thoughtful pug

What does it take to make your dog happy?  For one thing, lots of free treats, right?  Maybe not.  A recent study by Swedish researchers looked at how dogs react to getting “free”, unpredictable rewards versus working to earn predictable rewards.

The Study

The researchers trained beagles in the experimental group to use three distinct devices to earn a food reward.  After training, they put the dog in an enclosure with the same devices.  Once the dog correctly triggered the device, the enclosure door opened, and the dog was rewarded with access to other dogs, a familiar person or food (all three of which were reinforcing to the dog).  Other beagles (control group) were trained on a different set of devices, and then put in the same enclosure as the first dog.  The control beagles, then, were exposed to a set of devices that they had not been trained to use.  In addition, they had no control over when the enclosure door opened.  Instead, the enclosure door opened after the same amount of time it took the experimental beagle to solve the task.  That is, if the experimental dog took one minute to correctly use the device and be released from the room, the control beagle would also be released after one minute.  Control beagles were then given access to one of the same rewards – people, other dogs or food.  So, both beagles got access to the same reward after the same amount of time.  The only difference is that the beagles in the experimental group had to work to earn their reward, while the beagles in the control group got their reward regardless of their behavior.

Beagle

The researchers then assessed the dog’s emotional state by observing tail wagging, activity level and the dogs’ approach to the test room.  Which group do you think seemed “happier”?

(Please note – I placed “happier” in quotes because we are, of course, not able to know exactly what a dog is feeling or thinking.  The behaviors used to assess emotion in the dogs were reasonable, but they are by no means absolute proof that these dogs are feeling a particular emotion, such as happiness.  The best we can do is make an educated guess based on our observations and experience.  It’s important not to confuse an educated guess with absolute fact.)

The Results

It turns out that beagles in the experimental group seemed to be “happier” than beagles in the control group.  This was based on observations of tail wagging and activity level in dogs of each group.  In addition, beagles in the experimental group pulled toward the testing room and usually entered the room before the handler.  In contrast, after the first few trials, control beagles were reluctant to enter the room.  By the end, they would only enter with coaxing by the handler. This suggests that there is something intrinsically reinforcing about working – or solving problems – to earn a reward.  It also suggests that a lack of control and predictability over the receipt of a reward is stressful – findings that have been replicated over and over again in studies on a wide range of species.

Apply it to Your Own Dogs

Enrichment balancing kong

This has important implications for our own dogs.  There are many things you can do at home to give your dog problem solving opportunities.  Here are just a few.

  • Implement a Nothing in Life is Free program with your dog.  This program advises families to ask their dog to do a cued behavior prior to getting anything they enjoy.  For example, my dog Darwin must sit or touch my hand before I give him a treat, play tug or let him outside.  This gives the dog a (very simple) problem to solve and gives him some level of control and predictability over rewards.
  • Buy a food dispensing toy for your dog.  Fill it with kibble and help your dog learn how to get food out of it.  For example, roll it around on the floor and point out the food to your dog as it falls on the floor.  They will quickly get the hang of the game and work on the toy without help from you. Good options are Busy Buddies (available locally at Benson’s) and interactive toys at Planet Dog (online) and Dawgdom in Saratoga.
  • Hide your dog’s favorite toys or treats around the house and encourage her to find them.  Make it easy at first, then gradually more challenging.
  • Play hide and seek with your dog – you hide, they seek.  Reward with play or treats when she finds you.  Great for kids and dogs on rainy days!  (Word of caution – some dogs get extremely competitive over this game, so they may need to be separated to avoid tussles.)
  • Teach your dog tricks or engage in fun, positive training.  Try a dog sport like tracking, agility or Rally.

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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