If you feel like your dog pays attention and truly listens to everything you do and say, you’re not imagining things. Recent research has shown that human encouragement might be a huge influence on how dogs solve problems. In short, our words and actions might actually shape a crucial part of our pups’ overall behavior.
The May 2018 study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science analyzed both pet and search-and-rescue dogs after they were all assigned the same problem-solving task. All the pups took about the same amount of time working to find a solution, but the search-and-rescue dogs were more successful when they were encouraged by their owners. These same dogs were unable to find a solution without a human around. But here’s where it gets interesting: Some of the pet dogs were able to solve the task with their owner present but not encouraging them — and those same pups were also able to solve the task when they were totally alone.
“We thought that was unusual,” lead author and doctoral student Lauren Brubaker said in a press release. “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. 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.”
It’s pretty incredible that a pet owner’s influence could be so great that their doggos could be able to solve a task without a trusty human even in the room, isn’t it? But before you get worried and start thinking that your pup doesn’t need you anymore, take a deep breath and relax. The different dogs’ specific reactions to their owners encouraging them really shows how important humans are to their lives, whether it’s for play time or work time.
“While most dogs increase the amount of time they spend attending to the puzzle when encouraged, pet dogs often end up treating the puzzle like a toy,” said Monique Udell, an animal scientist who directs the lab used in the study. “Instead of engaging in goal-directed behavior, they act as if their owner was encouraging them to play. It’s possible that when directed by their owners, search and rescue dogs instead see opening the box as their job.”
More research is needed to know the specific reasons why this happens. But in the meantime, we can all keep in mind that wholeheartedly encouraging our dogs might be key to getting them to pay attention when we house-train them, or even ask them to fetch a stick. It never hurts to throw the science-approved phrase, “Who’s a good boy?” in there, too!
For more doggy cuteness, see pups who love to swim without water in the video below: